The medical thriller is an incredibly specific sub-genre, defined by surgical masks, drugs, and paranoia. It’s not usually about magic, but that’s the beauty of book genres: they can be whatever the writer wants them to be. Ferrett Steinmetz’s novel Flex is out from Angry Robot this month, and it got me thinking about what a fan of medical thrillers would look for on a bookstore’s sci-fi and fantasy shelves.
Flex is set in an urban fantasy world in which the titular magical drug is a crystalized form of luck. You snort it, live a charmed life while high, and face a proportional amount of bad luck when you finally crash. When one father turns to Flex to heal his burned daughter, he runs a gamut of drug dealers, brain-wiping authorities, and the dangers of the drug itself. That’s right: this is basically Breaking Bad meets The Dresden Files.
Plenty of medical thrillers don’t dip into the worlds of science fiction or fantasy. This post isn’t about them. But if you love the heart-pumping scientific spirit behind medical thrillers, these 5 books are just what the doctor… well, you know.
The Terminal Man, by Michael Crichton
Although best known for writing Jurassic Park, Crichton’s origins lie in medicine: he earned his MD at Harvard. Perhaps the best example of his medical thrillers is 1972’s Terminal Man, in which a man suffering from psychomotor epilepsy receives an experimental brain pacemaker to prevent seizures. The effects aren’t exactly as anticipated. The novel has been praised for its exploration of mind control, which can be very cerebral, no pun intended.
The Sector General series, by James White
The 12 books in the Sector General series are feature a unique setting, a giant, multi-species space station hospital. Created after the first intergalactic war, the station is designed to promote peace across the galaxy. This is a fun series that takes a different approach to space opera science fiction: instead of winning a war, the heroes must race to patch up bizarre alien biology. They even use mental uploads of alien doctors’ personalities, à la Neo learning kung fu in The Matrix.
Younger, by Suzanne Munshower
Munshower’s thriller, which comes out this April, delves into the cosmetic division of medicine. It stars an LA-based PR pro in her mid-50s who needs to look younger to stay successful. She agrees to test a product designed to make her look 30 years younger, but as people connected to the project start turning up dead, she realizes that her own life might be a lot shorter than it looks.
Afterparty, by Daryl Gregory
Flex has one fictional drug, but Afterparty deals out an endless supply. It’s set during a “Smart Drug revolution,” in which anyone can become a self-taught custom-designer of ability enhancing pharmaceuticals. The hero, mental patient Lyda Rose, accidentally starts a religion after designing drug that creates a total belief in God, and the novel follows her trek to the manufacturers to figure out how to fix things. She also has a biochemically created, hallucinatory guardian angel sidekick, so that’s another obvious point in its favor.
The Bohr Maker, by Linda Nagata
Nagata almost single-handedly created the nanopunk genre in the mid-’90s with the release of Bohr Maker, a future-set novel about a genetically engineered human trying to steal a device that will rewrite his genetic code and halt his own body’s pre-programmed death. The mind-blowing ideas come just as fast as the thrilling plot twists, almost as if the author herself had been genetically rewritten to pen the perfect science fiction thriller.
What’s your favorite SF/F twist on the medical thriller?