A Pilgrim, A Saracen, and a Biothreat: A Review of I Am Pilgrim

If you were to get in the mind of someone in the biodefense field and amalgamate every horrible bioterrorist scenario that exists there you might come up with something like that envisaged by Terry Hayes in I Am Pilgrim. This 2013 book expertly weaves together standard espionage and law enforcement motifs with the possibility of bioterrorism. The bioterrorism act contemplated by the antagonist of the novel is no ordinary act, but one that would be positively cataclysmic, but not in an artificial way. The nefarious plan devised by Hayes's villain, known throughout most of the novel as The Saracen, is plucked right from real biosecurity concerns that derive from real scientific knowledge and experiments. In fact, Hayes integrates threats from synthetic biology, vaccine strategies, with weak pharmaceutical supply chains -- all topics of real concern in the field.

The plot of the novel is centered on a retired covert agent called back into action to stop an adversary to whom the "thinking enemy" label so often used in biosecurity discussions is a gross understatement. Overcoming his own personal conflicts, The Pilgrim, an expert forensic investigator, pieces together scattered clues in a methodical manner in order to zero in on his target. Throughout, and this may be the theme Hayes constructed his plot around, family ties between villains, minor characters, the protagonist's allies, and the protagonist are given strong emphasis and shown to be strengths and weaknesses depending on the context. 

I enjoyed, and was entertained, by the book for many reasons that went beyond the biosecurity setting of the novel. It is an exciting read. However, I do take issue with the ability of the protagonist's prowess with synthetic biology which he employs to synthesize a virus from scratch and endow it with vaccine-resistant traits. As has been thoroughly analyzed by Kathleen Vogel such feats are much more involved than just simply following a recipe. Tacit knowledge is not something easily obtained and, in fact, may preclude laboratory feats accomplished in one laboratory from being replicated in another with equivalent technology. That is not to diminish the very real simplification that has occurred in the realm, but science is still hard.

The book is soon to become a film and I am sure I won't be the only one in my profession seeing how biosecurity plays in Hollywood.