Cover image for Sea change
Sea change
Powlik, James.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York, N.Y. : Delacorte Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
353 pages : map ; 25 cm
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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With breakneck pacing and frighteningly authentic detail, this bio-technothriller by a real-life oceanographer explores a horrifyingly possible what if scenario of a deadly marine organism heading toward shore.

Author Notes

James Powlik is a researcher with a Ph.D. in biological oceanography & has been a consultant to science & education projects for, among others, the EPA, NASA, the National Science Foundation, & the U.S. Department of Commerce. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The latest big biotech thriller is rather what you would expect if Michael Crichton came up with a killer sea-blob. For the biomenace at hand is a form of plankton that moves in organized masses held together by mucus. It dissolves everything it touches and emits the equivalent of nerve gas into the atmosphere. Naturally, the pestiferous Pfesteria, as it is called, arose unnaturally, as the result of a biological warfare experiment flushed down the drain by the yarn's hero's former father-in-law. The thing conducts its career in standard fashion, first munching a couple of spear-carrier types, then drawing ever more important characters into the fight against it, until finally the four principals join the fray. They are William Garner, maverick oceanographer; Ellie Bridges, sensitive and committed doctor; Carol Harmon, Garner's ex-wife; and Roger Harmon, Carol's latest hitch, an increasingly maniacal celebrity environmentalist whose characterization is a not-bad satire of that ilk. Matters run the usual course: the body count outstrips knowledge of the danger until the big action climax that leaves room for a sequel and that, in this case, teaches more about the uses of liquid nitrogen than the average reader probably ever expected to have the opportunity to learn. Powlik is clearly at home with the details of the oceanic environment; his grasp of fiction techniques is less certain. Seekers for a new page-turning biotech thriller will hear about this one, though. Lay it aboard. --Roland Green

Publisher's Weekly Review

In a season where deadly biological epidemics seem to be the thriller topic of choice (see Gerritsen's Gravity, above), Powlik's exciting debut speculates on a pandemic with a humble origin: microscopic marine protozoaÄonly these minute creatures have transformed into a cataclysmically dangerous organism. Horrific deaths that liquefy the brains and flesh of victims baffle Canadian and American researchers in remote fishing hamlets of the Pacific Northwest until marine microbiologist William Brock Garner; his ex-wife, whale sonar expert Carol Harmon; and physician Ellie Bridges get on the case. Facing stiff resistance from Carol's father, Charles, a former Defense Department consultant, the trio challenge the conflicting agendas of environmentalists, scientists, the government and tourist industries to identify and stop the deadly phenomenon. A swimming microbial fish pathogen has mutated to link billions of madly reproducing cells into one huge, floating colony that pumps out lethal, airborne poisons that can stall engines as well as dissolve living tissue. Brock locates the colonyÄnow heading toward SeattleÄwith a gale approaching and no way to stop it until Carol's new husband, a self-promoting eco-warrior, throws money, press clout and equipment into the battle, discreetly backed by U.S. agents who know the sinister truth connected to Carol's father. At heart this is an expert riff on the classic monster-horror novel, unoriginal in structure but as swiftly moving as a tsunami. Canadian oceanographer Powlik invests his adventure with echoes of terror tales past, fiction and nonfiction, from The Blob to The Hot Zone, as well as with authentic science, an affecting romance and a knockout climax. As sure as shark jaws, this thriller will keep readers out of the water and on the beach, reading their eyes out. $250,000 ad/promo; BDD audio; author tour. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

A life-threatening plankton bloom (a fast-growing colony of microorganisms that eats every living thing in its path) is gathering strength off the coast of Washington State. Meanwhile, marine microbiologist Brock Garner and his ex-wife, Carol, who are investigating the mysterious death of Carol's brother, slowly realize that Mark is not the only fatality and that whatever is causing mass destruction among the marine population is a serious threat to all life in the area. Mobilizing what resources they can, the Garners and a small group of like-minded individuals set out to stop the colony from moving into Puget Sound. Biologist and oceanographer Powlik brings a great deal of real-life knowledge to this fantastical story of microorganisms running rampant. The possibility that such an event could actually happen helps make this a suspenseful and gripping tale. A good summer read; suitable for most fiction collections.ÄJo Ann Vicarel, Cleveland Heights-University Heights P.L., OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



August 8 50° N. Lat.; 132° W. Long. Downrange of Northeast Pacific Weather Station "Papa" The horizon was a featureless gray line in every direction from the R/V Exeter as the ship cruised directly west, out of sight of any land. Except for drifting cloud formations, the view had not changed for ten days. Stretching nearly one-quarter of the way across the North Pacific, the 50th parallel of latitude was known as "Line P" on an alphabetically assigned sampling grid devised by researchers of JGOFS--the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study. Twice each year, survey ships returned to these same positions for up to five weeks at a time, sampling the ocean's temperature, salinity, microscopic fauna, and trace elements to evaluate their cycling and recycling in the sea. Through careful repetition, a model was being devised to determine what the ocean contained, how it continued to evolve, and what predictions could be made about its behavior. Those who believed, and appreciated, that the ship would soon turn back toward solid ground affectionately knew Station P24, the end of this line at 150 degrees West Longitude, as "Papa." Standing just over six-foot-two, William Brock Garner had learned to duck his head slightly whenever passing through one of the Exeter's hatchways. He was muscular in an understated way, with toned limbs and a naturally athletic stride that suggested more than his infrequent participation in beach volleyball, pick-up basketball, or a Sunday morning jog. Garner's eyes were a sharp, crystalline gray, capable of flicking from compassionate to predatory with a single blink. His features were handsome and defined, smooth except for two minor but noticeable imperfections: a slight curve to the slope of his nose and a small scar that cut across his eyebrow in the shape of a lazy-S. Both were souvenirs from an abbreviated but respectable career in the U.S. Navy that saw him retire early at the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Another place, another time. Same ocean. Garner glanced at the depth meter as he moved from the main lab to the afterdeck: 3,520 meters/11,550 feet, roughly the average depth of the oceans worldwide. Having long ago passed over the continental shelf that bordered the North American continent like a submerged geological hoopskirt, the Exeter was now cruising at 13 knots two miles above the ocean floor, the closest point of solid earth. Anything tossed overboard would take more than ninety minutes to freefall to the bottom. A massive A-frame boom painted industrial yellow centered the stern of the Exeter, the ship's frothy wake stretched out behind it. Nearly as massive and colorful in his orange exposure suit was Sergei Zubov, the Exeter's chief science assistant. At the moment, Zubov's gaze shifted repeatedly between the winch and a gleaming, five-foot-diameter sphere that gently bobbed against its restraining cables fifteen feet above the deck. The result of Garner's painstaking design, the sphere was an automated plankton sampler. In the previous hundred years of formalized ocean study, there had probably been as many designs for "the definitive plankton sampler," and several had survived the test of time. Many found Garner's elegant but temperamental design unpalatable, if not utterly ridiculous; the rest regarded it as revolutionary. Zubov had subscribed to the latter group the first time Garner brought the gleaming beast aboard the Exeter. While that first impression had ebbed after countless adjustments, blown circuits, and frustrated profanity, Zubov now watched over Garner's invention like the tireless parent of a brilliant but habitually sick child. The lower hemisphere of the device was cast from weighted titanium, nearly smooth despite its full array of infrared sensors and microfocus cameras designed to count and identify microorganisms in their natural habitat. The equator of the instrument contained openings to a cadre of specimen chambers that automatically captured parcels of water for later analysis. (That the arrangement of the chamber ports resembled a grinning mouth and eyes when viewed from the front wasn't just a functional decision by the device's inventor.) Finally, the top of the sphere renounced all symmetry, blossoming into an ungainly bouquet of instruments for recording temperature, pressure, light, and conductivity as the device was towed through the euphotic zone, the light-penetrated surface waters of the ocean. Some said the instrument looked like Sputnik on a bad hair day, but Garner selected a more obvious nickname for his brainchild: the Medusa sphere. In the search for vindication, the Medusa supported its mythological moniker. The first several attempts to sample with the device had produced no useful results. After each failed attempt, Garner would bring the instrument back into its deck housing and meticulously check each of its connections to the computerized controls in the lab. Zubov then had to ensure that the instrument was precisely redeployed so it would fly properly as it was towed through the water. When Medusa did work--had a good hair day--the sphere had to be paced through its sampling regimen under precise parameters over several miles, despite adverse sea conditions attempting to thwart this arrangement and its house-of-cards fragility. If all went right, Medusa could provide more data in a single tow than any two dozen alternatives. The samples were cleaner and more precise and could be processed more efficiently than with any other sampler ever built. But if one thing went wrong, the trial was lost and the entire sampling schedule could be delayed or canceled completely. The learning curve of such attempts was especially annoying to the Exeter's crew, who were at sea for two hundred days a year and had hosted an unending series of neurotic, obsessive, and (usually) far-from-seaworthy scientists and their brittle equipment, whose racks of Pyrex glassware and schizophrenic electronics did little to earn the respect of those accustomed to gear grease and pig iron. If for no other reason, Garner and Zubov should have been natural adversaries, but Garner proved to be a very crewman-like scientist and Zubov was a very scientific crewman. Following countless nights shared on a storm-swept deck, inventing new expletives about Medusa or complaining to the bottom of a bottle of liquor smuggled on board, the men had established an effective system of communication. More than that, Garner trusted implicitly Zubov's accuracy in deploying Medusa, so much so that Garner could concentrate on the processing of samples rather than their collection. With the majority of his NSF--National Science Foundation--and NOAA--National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration--research funds invested in a sphere of titanium and PVC flying through space some two hundred feet below them, peace of mind only vaguely covered the ease that Garner felt. For his part, Zubov knew that getting the samples was virtually all that could justify the expenditure of effort. Besides, as he often immodestly reminded Garner, ensuring that the right numbers got collected was his job. "Fucking whore," Zubov cursed as Garner approached. "The damn sensor array keeps getting caught up." Zubov was two inches taller than Garner and outweighed him by a hundred pounds. With his coal black eyes and coils of shiny black hair flowing down into a thick, matted beard, Zubov reminded Garner of a younger, larger, but more tapered version of Luciano Pavarotti. Zubov had been born in the Ukraine, leaving the rest of his natural-born family there and defecting to America only months before his hometown of Chernobyl rose to global notoriety. Now a permanent U.S. citizen, Zubov retained little evidence of his homeland beyond name, appetite, and a stalwart dedication to duty. Occasionally, only when he was drunk and rarely for more than a few syllables, his accent would slip its Americanized clarity and provide an echo of an almost-forgotten former life. The subtle departure in character often surprised those who didn't know Zubov well; for friends like Garner, former lives were simply another reason to go to sea in the first place. Excerpted from Sea Change by James Powlik All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.