Techno-Highs : Blanche d’Alpuget cultivates fears of hideous super-viruses in the hands of your next-door neighbor. : WHITE EYE, <i> By Blanche d’Alpuget (Simon & Schuster: $22; 256 pp.)</i>

<i> Susan Heeger is a free-lance writer and editor</i>

Summer may be nearing its end, but the days of a ripping good read under a beach umbrella aren’t over yet, especially now that Blanche d’Alpuget has written “White Eye.”

From the creepy prologue to the gut-punching last page, her plot roars along like a Land Rover on a bumpy trail in the outback. Murders pile up, along with animal rights abuses, industrial sabotage, even a plan to annihilate humanity.

It all begins when a beautiful corpse turns up near an isolated Australian research lab and an eagle is shot out of the sky as it prepares to swoop down on the warm flesh. By the time the body’s cold, the story has spread out in so many directions, the murder seems almost a red herring. But in this tale of psycho-scientists, eco-warriers and blood-thirsty birds of prey, everything comes together in the end. Love, death, animals, humans and deadly gene-spliced viruses are all part of the fabric that binds the contemporary world together, for better or worse.

If this sounds like a standard sci-tech thriller, it’s not. D’Alpuget, a master of fine-tuned characterization, has loaded her stage with some of the most distinctive rogues, battered idealists and nut cases in current fiction. There isn’t a throwaway or walk-on part in the pack. This population of desperate critters--many just beasts in human form and most related to one other through a complex web of small-town intermarriage and adultery--lift the enterprise from a plot-driven chase to an offbeat meditation on humanity and its future.


Take John Parker, the twisted, sloppily groomed man of science who is moved to tears over virulent bacteria, plots to quash worldwide population growth single-handedly and believes that, “To be a complete human . . . one must be a complete animal first.” His wife Sonja, a simpering ninny who adores him, turns out to be equally savage and unbalanced, a revelation that finally wins her man’s respect, though not his loyalty. Then there’s Diana Pemberton, the novel’s heroine, a gutsy yet emotionally damaged environmentalist who has learned what determination is during her years of training great wild hunting birds. It’s a safe assumption that Diana, once she gets wind of evil doings at “the Research,” won’t rest till she knows what’s happening there, even if she has to risk her own life.

Surrounding Diana are hordes of secondary players: a financially strapped pilot who transports chimpanzees illegally to be guinea pigs for Parker’s madness; the head of the lab’s security, a lonely widower for whom bliss is a cozy chat with his cop daughter about a murder case; a pair of goofy adolescents whose nighttime rambles in search of fun lead them straight to the scientific snake pit.

One of the novel’s themes, in fact, is that none of us are very far removed from the creeping, crawling heart of darkness. But human savagery--often deliberately cruel and chaotic--outdoes anything found in nature, where cruelty is more dispassionate, more routine. Worse, humans control the world’s technology, which is moving faster than we can decide what to do with it. There’s a constant danger that the wrong people--wolves in men’s clothing--may be gaining power over the destiny of all: humans, animals, life itself.

D’Alpuget, award-winning Australian author of three previous novels and two biographies, has done extensive research to make this point ring true, and to render such scientific complexities as gene splicing comprehensible to the lay reader. She has also written a poetic book that brings the natural and human-made world alive in stunning imagery--in the “split-apple shape” of an owl’s face; in a flock of cockatoos, “broad-shouldered, yellow crests erect, yelling at each other like drunks in party hats;” in a small town “laid out like the vascular system of a narrow leaf.”


Such writing--together with the hurtling story line--does a lot to compensate for a few flaws in her design. These include the almost offhand and not totally convincing revelation of the murderer. And later on, amid a sequence of vengeful bad-guy killings, one good guy is spared for no clear reason other than to match him up with another character in a truly cinematic scene of romantic rescue. (Two will-be lovers, knocked around, bloodied, fall on each other in a weedy field as the villains fly off in a Cessna.)

In fact, it’s hard not to see “White Eye"--also the nickname of the virus that causes victims’ eyes to ooze horribly before they die--as a movie, and even a sequel, since the book closes with the suggestion of more adventures to come. But most enjoyably, “White Eye,” the novel, offers a ride through territory both literary and entertaining.