Dateline: the Isle of Sheppey, 50 miles east of London. A deadly new virus spreads between cats and their owners. Meanwhile, in the basement labs of a North London research institute, Professor Artemis “Artie” Marshall, an underfunded but brilliant scientist, suddenly finds her esoteric research intersecting with this mounting public health crisis.
Jennifer L. Rohn’s Cat Zero is a blend of whodunit, thriller, romance, and scientific procedural. Against the background of a pervasive culture of chauvinism and oblivious male privilege, the young, driven Artie must combat a variety of scientific and workplace obstacles to solve a terrifying mystery.
“The laboratory is a rich setting for fiction,” says Rohn, who, in addition to writing, runs a cell biology lab at University College London. “There are deep scientific mysteries, elaborate machines, arcane rituals, pressurized situations, and the usual human imperatives of greed, jealousy, competition, joy, and despair.”
“Lab lit,” the term Rohn coined to describe the genre of realist fiction about science, is on the rise. “The tide began to turn,” she says, “when well-known authors started to write fiction about scientists.” The success of Tracy Chevalier, Barbara Kingsolver, Simon Mawer, Ian McEwan, Richard Powers, and others has dovetailed with an increased public interest in science over the past few decades.
Rohn thinks the renaissance is due in part to shifting cultural attitudes. “In the 20th century, scientists were the bad guys,” she says. “In the 21st, as they rally to save us from the risks imposed by dwindling fossil fuels, decreasing food security, climate change, and global pandemics, they are now seen as heroes who are, quite literally, trying to save the planet.”
Artie is one of these heroes. She has in her sights an obscure cat virus—also the subject of Rohn’s doctoral dissertation—that was once at the forefront of AIDS research. Rohn chose to go back to the virus via fiction “as part joke, part challenge,” she says. “Could I write a suspenseful tale about an obscure cat virus that nobody in the world cares about?”
The answer is resoundingly yes. As Cat Zero makes clear, academic science is ruthless when it comes to shifting trends, and Artie’s chosen subject of study has fallen out of fashion. Rohn playfully points out what is missed by new methods of study, having Artie revel in the joys of timeless pursuits such as holing up with dusty books from the library stacks. When Artie discovers that the virus is a key component in the deadly epidemic on Sheppey, her persistence is validated.
“Never underestimate viruses,” Rohn says. “They are mercurial, beautiful, fascinating… but potentially deadly. As the novel highlights, we can never predict where—or when—the next world-threatening pandemic will emerge.”
Though Artie contends with unwanted sexual advances from one male colleague, obstruction and sabotage from another, and dismissive, blatant sexism from yet another who also happens to be her collaborator in predicting the deadly epidemic’s spread, she still finds time to fall for her male postdoc, giving Cat Zero a touch of romance. The myriad obstacles Artie faces are both outrageous and dispiritingly familiar, which makes it ever more satisfying to find out how she finally triumphs.