Fiction Lab 

Don't call it sci-fi: Catbird Publishing wants to turn real Bay Area science into high-tech thrillers, and real scientists into novelists.

The time is now. The place is right here. The people are your usual Bay Area office-park denizens — gene jockeys and computer geeks and business types with flashy cars. They work at a biotech firm that looks like every other nondescript corporate HQ along I-880. They worry about stock prices and foreign buyouts, and in the summer some of them go to Burning Man. Then they develop a gene therapy that extends life indefinitely, and to escape religious wingnuts and government agents and industry rivals, they flee to the desert, where they continue their work in a secret trailer complex funded by billionaires with a yen for eternal youth. Did we mention we're talking about characters in a novel, and not, say, the people who work in the industrial park across the street from your office?

Specifically, it's a novel called Forever and Ever, the first release from a very unusual publishing house called Catbird. It is literally a house, a pleasantly beige suburban tract home in the Hayward hills. Catbird is powered by the unlikely alliance of a writer, a biotech executive, and a retired schoolteacher, all of whom happened to find themselves on the same block one summer and decided to stir up some trouble.

They dub their hideout the Engine Room, which to the untrained eye looks like a very tidy den. Their leader is Commandante Supremo, who also goes by the more prosaic name of Dan Baker. He is the author of Catbird Novel Numero Uno, and bestower of nicknames. Catbird's scientific adviser is Commodore Zero, aka Walter Funk, Ph.D, who by day seeks out cancer and heart-disease therapies as VP of research for Nuvelo, a San Carlos-based biopharmaceuticals company. Commander Josephine, or Pat Brodehl, is marketing director, and her job is to sweet-talk publications like Oprah's O magazine and the Library Journal Book Review into considering a book from a publishing company no one has heard of, on a topic people don't expect to encounter in the literature section at Barnes & Noble.

To wit: The book's main character is chief scientist at a drug-discovery company. Her life's great passion is preimplantation embryo screening. Within the first few chapters, Baker has dropped phrases like "telomerase induction," "germ-line engineering," and "FDA approval process." The Bridges of Madison County this ain't.

As for book-jacket PR, rare is the novel that's blurbed almost entirely by bona fide stem-cell researchers and physicians. "Not only are the techniques, the medicine, the companies, and the people all accurate, but his scientific theme — reversal of human aging — is about to become reality," wrote Michigan State University's Michael Fossel, author of the decidedly nonfiction Reversing Human Aging.

Stanley Shostak, an emeritus developmental biologist at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Becoming Immortal: Combining Cloning and Stem Cell Therapy, lauded Catbird's first book this way: "Baker got the science right!"

But getting the science right is only one of the publisher's ambitions. The other is to make some noise. The company's plan is to commission future books by Bay Area scientists who will, they hope, produce no-holds-barred meditations on the real-life implications of the technologies they are cooking up. Catbird is already trolling the local science community for submissions, asking researchers if they have any literary work stashed in a drawer. The region's biotech industry, Catbird's founders agree, is long overdue for a creative outlet, a public way to discuss what a future shaped by biotech might look like.

Working scientists are by nature constrained in their public statements — there are grants to maintain, shareholders to please, company PR execs to approve their wording and ethicists waiting to parse it. Young academics, meanwhile, have their tenure to consider.

"You're rarely going to get an academic to rail against his institution or provide some biting commentary about the granting process, or get a biotech or pharmaceutical person to describe their interactions with the FDA in any candid way, because that would be career suicide," Funk says. "But it's important for the public to understand the way these interactions and negotiations occur at a level that would probably be best served by someone having at least an anonymous veneer between them and their words."

To this end, Catbird proposes two solutions: One is to encourage scientists to write under the veil of fiction, perhaps teaming them with creative writers. The other is the liberal use of pen names. "We'll assign you a code name like 'Goldfinger' just for the pure hell of it and let everybody else figure out who you are!" Baker roars. In short, Catbird is looking for the next Anonymous to write the high-tech equivalent of Primary Colors.

Don't worry, the first paragraph of this story wasn't a plot spoiler — just the start of protagonist Dr. Jasmine Metcalf's journey into an underground world of secret labs and high-stakes experiments. The story begins with a child who has progeria, a very real — and very rare — genetic disorder that vastly accelerates aging. Stricken children look like tiny, wizened old people by the time they are toddlers, and don't live past puberty.

In the book, Jasmine and her husband Earl, a physician and biotech researcher, are determined to save the life of an eight-year-old progeric boy. They figure out a way to manipulate the genes that control his rapid aging, and quickly realize this therapy could be applied to anyone.

That's where the trouble begins. In escaping the politics of a world not quite ready for age reversal, the Metcalfs get swept up with outlaw embryonic-stem-cell researcher Will Behlen. Will and his underground confederates practice what Baker calls "garage science," privately funded research conducted without protection or oversight from a university or public company, and often outside the law. At one point, Jasmine asks Will if he's doing a particular cutting-edge experiment "in silico" — meaning via computer modeling, which traditionally happens well before clinical trials are approved for human subjects. Will responds that he's working "in Fed-Exia," by having medical supplies shipped to his hideout.

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