Book Review: The Chemical Code

Article by Raffaella Ocone CEng FIChemE

Fiona Erskine; ISBN: 978086154203; Point Blank, an imprint of Oneworld; £9.99; 2023

Picking up from the events described in The Chemical Cocktail, The Chemical Code unfolds in Brazil, where the central character of the series, Dr Jaq Silver, races to punish the people who have taken from her what she values most (I’m not going to reveal what; I don’t want to spoil the reading). To survive, she relies on her endurance, resilience and, most importantly, her chemical engineering knowledge.

The fourth in the “Chemical” series, it fulfils all the expectations of the reader by continuing with the intricate plot and the exploitation of science and engineering knowledge to turn the course of actions to the advantage of the protagonist by solving problems, or even helping to save her life. The distinct fusion of science and action, an ongoing aspect of the series, along with the story’s original plot have the power to deliver an engaging reading experience.

In this book, Jaq continues to develop as the strong female protagonist, but other women sometimes share the spotlight. Although not taking central stage, they contribute to the story, with their characters sometimes complex but always somehow strong – such as Graça, the policewoman who fights against a corrupt and misogynistic environment.

But Jaq takes centre stage, offering an exciting, though dramatised, representation of a woman in engineering. The chemical engineer continues to be the focus that embeds the plot and drives how the story unfolds. Engineering decisions are at the base of life and death, even if the motivation is a personal one.

The chemical engineering knowledge – which is where author and chemical engineer Fiona Erskine feels most at home – permeates most of the book from the description of a noise that can be attributed to specific machinery, to the smell of sugar cane processing. At one point, Jaq reflects: “I stare at the silver towers of absorption columns glinting in the sunlight. This is what engineers are for. Ingenuity.”

Who could have so effectively inject such poetry into a description of equipment but a chemical engineer!

Erskine also masters the description of the engineer, producing interest and, in some cases, self-scrutiny. I found it amusing when Jaq, unable to justify her actions otherwise, simply says: “I am an engineer,” something I have found myself doing on so many occasions when I did not have a reasonable answer.

Jaq is depicted as the archetypal engineer. Through her adventures, Erskine explores clichés such as the not-too-uncommon belief that engineering excellence might ignore the commercial reality, and engineers being viewed as not the most articulate of creatures.

A commonality that The Chemical Code shares with the previous books in the series is the exploration of the ethical dimension of engineering activities. In this instalment, Erskine embarks on an adventure in the controversial sector of mining. I think that the balance between social-economic consideration and technical facts is mastered, evidencing the authors deep knowledge and analysis. Specifically, the exploration of the ethics of mining, its influence on people and the environment, and considerations about health versus wealth, provide food for thought about the work of engineers.

The book is also informative, providing facts and figures about metals, their production, and their use. A little space is also reserved for depicting efforts in academic work and the fate of research outside the academic environment that encouraged my thought on very timely issues such as responsible technology and its regulation.

The Chemical Code is an intelligent mix of facts and fiction that not only engages the reader, but encourages further research. This is a fiction I recommend for its ability to thrill, while serving to offer engineers a view of their skills and knowledge through an exhilarating lens, possibly drawing outside interest along the way.

Article by Raffaella Ocone CEng FIChemE

Professor of Chemical Engineering at Heriot-Watt University

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