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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Hal Cousins was never close to his twin brother, Rob, despite the fact that both were microbiologists searching for the key to longevity. So when Rob calls to ask him if he has talked to their deceased father lately, Hal is confused and irritated, but not interested enough to follow up. He's focused on convincing a wealthy, eccentric financier to fund his controversial research.
Three weeks later, his backing secured, Hal is in a deep submersible in the Juan de Fuca Trench, looking for the primordial bacteria that long ago invaded human cells and developed into mitochondria. Hal believes that mitochondria, now essential to human cellular activity, are also the triggers for the cellular decay that leads to aging and death. Hal's hope, his all-consuming passion, is to find a way to use "mitochondrial chromosome adjustment" to stop this decay and give human beings immortality.
But deep in the trench, 8,000 feet below the surface, the submersible pilot freaks out and tries to kill Hal and wreck the sub. Hal initiates an emergency ascent, but things on the surface are no better. A scientist on the research ship has also gone on a rampage, killing several crew members while searching for Hal. Under suspicion by the FBI, Hal loses his funding, and his precious deep-sea specimens are destroyed. As devastating as that is, worse yet are the two messages on his cell phone. One is a strange warning and goodbye from his twin brother. The other is from Rob's estranged wife, Lissa, telling him that Rob has been found shot to death in a New York City alley. When a mysterious man who calls himself "K" approaches Hal with a package of documents from Rob, Hal learns that he is the target of a shadowy organization trying to stop his search for immortality. After his research is discredited, his apartment ia burned, and he's attacked on the street, Hal, K, and Lissa go on the run, trying to follow the clues in Rob's papers to the unravel identity of their tormentors and the truth behind Rob's death.
Vitals made me wish I'd paid more attention in biology class and told me more about the symbiotic bacteria that live in the human body than I ever wanted to know. But Bear does an excellent job of explaining the science in layman's terms without dumbing it down. The story takes us from the bottom of the sea to the Satlin-era Soviet Union to a top-secret facility in New York City to a venerated doctor's Caribbean paradise, all united by a fascination with the properties and possibilities of bacteria. Another bonus in Bear's books, often not bothered with in "thrillers," is the wonderful complexity of his characters. Hal Cousins is at first too arrogant and obsessed to be likable. But, as he delves deeper into the puzzle and learns some hard truths about himself, his brother, and the scientific community they were immersed in, he becomes someone who can at least be respected. The cast of supporting characters is equally nuanced, with each never being quite what they seem, to either Hal or the reader.
I thoroughly enjoyed Vitals and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants a story to be as smart as it is exciting. (K.C.)