The Hot Zone meets Jaws in James Powlik's debut novel Sea Change, an environmental thriller that gives new meaning to the phrase "Don't go into the water." The culprit here isn't anything so obvious as a gigantic great white. It's an altered marine protozoa, a transformed plankton bloom that has become an horrifically dangerous, eerily purposeful organism hunting the waters off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The author, an oceanographer who has acted as a consultant to agencies including the NSF and NASA, obviously knows his research subject. Although the narrative flows relatively smoothly, his dialogue and characterization are sometimes, well, shallow.
Brock Garner is an oceanographer struggling for credibility among his peers after an expensive "cry wolf" episode some years back regarding oceanic microorganisms threatening the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest. When his dire predictions came to naught, he lost not only his professional stature but also his marriage. Now, while out on the depths of the Pacific Ocean researching the state of marine health, he receives word from his ex-wife, Carol, that her brother has died shortly after finding a number of curiously decomposed sea otter corpses. She is not convinced of the coroner's opinions of her brother's cause of death, and she enlists Garner in her own private investigation.
A little girl dies inexplicably on Canadian physician Ellie Bridges third-shift ER, and the child's powerful father vows to finish her career. Before a leave of absence imposed by the hospital begins, an old Indian man and his grandson from coastal reservation lands bring in two dying abalone poachers. The divers' tissues disintegrate almost before Ellie's eyes and definitely before she can do anything to save them. Within hours, the young Indian boy is dead too, and Ellie, cut loose from the hospital, is determined to know why.
Carol's father disavows his daughter's investigation into his son's death, and brushes aside Garner's queries into how the cause of the young man's demise might be related to curious "dead zones" Garner came across farther out to sea. The old man, a venerably regarded researcher in his own right, may be unwilling to aid them, but Carol's new husband finally agrees after days of refusing to offer his resources. Bob Nolan is a self-promoting type, but his ecological recovery company stands to make a pretty profit consulting to the quietly interested U.S. government. Garner, Carol and Ellie uncover a threat to life as we know it more deadly and frightening than any virus that came out of Africa. But it might have something in common with Ebola and the other flesh-eaters: it might not have come into being without a little human intervention.
Full of the conspiracies and jargon that are the hallmark of a scientific thriller, Sea Change is a smart novel in the sense that the author knows his stuff. Too bad that his knowledge sometimes coughs itself up in clumsy clots of dialogue; not too many people, even honest-to-God brainiacs, define acronyms between dashes (--) in the normal course of conversation, no matter how strained the circumstances. Nonetheless, Sea Change is a neat riff on the biological terror theme, just far enough from the run-of-the-mill virus crowd.