Monthly Archives: January 2000

Visions, Michio Kaku

Anchor, 1997, 403 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 0-385-48499-2

Science-as-solution has taken a beating over the last century. While pundits of the Victorian era could confidently claim that “Science will solve everything!”, they were too close to the soot and grime of Industrial-era London to know better. We have the benefit of hindsight, and names like Hiroshima, Chernobyl, Challenger and Thalidomide to remind us of what happens when mistakes happen.

In this context, it’s a bit adventurous to write a book with a subtitle like “how science will revolutionize the 21st century”. Even though Americans haven’t lost their lust for new technology (as exemplified by the five years it took for the Internet to enter mainstream status), surely we’ve seen the end of the “scientific revolutions”, haven’t we? It’s not as if there are sizeable dragons to be explained away yet, right? Aren’t we reaching the end of science?

Ironically, this “end of science” argument closes Charles Sheffield’s book Borderlands of Science, a similarly-themed overview of the limits of today’s science. Kaku begins with this questions, answering it with a compelling argument: While it is true that we are reaching the limits of the Age of Understanding -a Theory of Everything is even in sight-, we are only beginning the Age of Mastery, where we’ll apply our pure knowledge in increasingly practical ways.

This Age of Mastery, according to Kaku, will spring from three different sources: the Quantum revolution, computer revolution and biomolecular revolution.

Readers already familiar with the field of scientific vulgarization probably already recognize Michio Kaku’s name from his previous book, the superb Hyperspace, which managed to teach superstring theory in an entertaining fashion. Vision doesn’t equal the sheer fun of the previous book, but stand alone as a successful attempt to survey today’s science and to predict where it will lead us in 2050 and beyond. Obviously, no single person can make such a judgement. Sheffield’s Borderlands of Science was a half-failure because he didn’t have the necessary knowledge to make accurate projections beyond the realm of physics. Kaku sidesteps the difficulty by donning a reporter’s hat and interviewing specialists outside his own sphere of competence. The result is a book that does feel like an overlong TV documentary at times, but that also covers most of the important subjects.

And so we go from ubiquitous PCs to global communications to artificial intelligence to beyond silicon to DNA decoding to genetic therapy to molecular medicine to longevity to genetic engineering to interstellar colonization. All subjects are examined in three different time frames: From here to 2020, from 2020 to 2050 and beyond 2050. Each major theme is followed by a counterpoint chapter which questions the pro-scientific assumptions of the previous chapters. If Visions somehow isn’t complete, well, it sure does feel complete.

As with any overview, there are rough patches. Ironically, the single major strength of Hyperspace, a sense-of-wonder at new theories, simply isn’t present in Visions, which for the most part presents material that’s quite familiar to anyone following technology news: Nanotechnology and immortality and semi-sentient computers have been discussed to death in Science-Fiction and socio-technological forums; while their inclusion is essential to Visions, they’re not new or especially mind-bending.

But it doesn’t really matter: Visions packages a really thorough mini-guide to science in a few hundred pages, and does so with a good sense of organization, plenty of sources, a good index and a very accessible writing style. Best read by individuals not currently aware of the cutting-edge fields of research, but also enjoyable by anyone else. Good stuff.

Still, I wonder how well it’ll read ten, twenty-five years from now… at the current pace of research, it almost looks as if we might be well beyond his most optimistic projections by then!

Term Limits, Vince Flynn

Pocket, 1997, 612 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02318-7

Most techno-thrillers are written from a moderately right-wing perspective. You know the type: Government is strong, government is good, politicians might be corrupt from time to time, but the honorable military shall set them straight. Plain “thrillers” (without the fancy techno-gadgets and usually from a non-military perspective) are more left-wing, with huge governmental conspiracies, paid CIA assassins, routine invasions of piracy and corrupt officials everywhere the protagonists can see.

One could write a pretty respectable Political Science / English Literature thesis on the political tendencies of modern thriller fiction. And one book almost certain to be included in any comparative study, despite its flaws, would be Vince Flynn’s Term Limits.

The novel explicitly differentiate itself from other thrillers by opening up with this quote:

…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government… it is their Right, it is their Duty, to thrown off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.

A line from some random anarchist author? Hardly. That’s an excerpt of The Declaration of Independence, by Thomas Jefferson.

For a while, Term Limits has the strength of Jefferson’s convictions. In the first few pages, Flynn paints the portrait of a corrupt American government ready to strongarm -even blackmail- lesser congressmen into voting for a controversial budget. Bad-boy National Security Advisor is introduced. Good-boy junior congressman is introduced. Three senior politicians are assassinated.

This is where the novel gets interesting, because in Flynn’s universe, these three politicians deserved to die. Flynn’s protagonist expresses satisfaction at seeing them taken out of the picture. Polls indicate that most Americans couldn’t care less about the death of three Washington fat cats. The so-called “terrorists”’ demands are pretty darn reasonable: A balanced national budget and, later on, term limits for federal politicians.

So far so good. Even though the whiff of personal libertarian politics is pretty strong, there’s a lot to be said for vigorous argumentation of contrarian viewpoints. So the bad guys aren’t bad guys and the good guys aren’t good guys. Strike one for original ambiguity.

Unfortunately, this moment soon passes, and more assassinations are committed, though this time the targets are far less deserving than the three original victims. As modus operantis doesn’t exactly match, it becomes obvious that there are copycat terrorists. But who are they? And what’s their purpose?

That’s where Term Limits loses a lot of interest, becoming yet another routine race-against-time-and-terrorists like we’ve seen so many times before. Everyone get what they deserve. The End.

The initial political specificity of Term Limits never disappears, but the impression is that it’s been sidestepped in favor of some rather more conventional thriller dynamics. The interesting issues of the beginning are ignored until they progressively disappear in the background.

At least the writing is clear -if a bit clunky in character exposition-, the protagonists suitably sympathetic and the pacing remains brisk, so that even apolitical readers will enjoy the book as solid entertainment. But those who expected an absorbing new take on american politics are bound to be disappointed after the first hundred pages, because Flynn can’t be bothered to explore the questions that he himself raises.

Perhaps he’s waiting for a Political Science / English Literature major to do it…

The Medicine of ER or, How we Almost Die, Harlan Gibbs, M.D. and Alan Duncan Ross

Basic Books, 1996, 232 pages, C$25.50 hc, ISBN 0-465-04473-5

One crucial test of the effectiveness of this new breed of media-derivate “The Science of Popular TV Show” books is to evaluate its impact on a non-viewer of said show. If Lawrence Krauss can teach science to non-fans with “The Physics of Star Trek”, then he must be doing something right. As a complete non-viewer of “ER”, that allowed me to judge the medical vulgarization of The Medicine of ER on its own value.

The book does get in a bit thickly into the show’s lingo and characters at times (for instance, it re-evaluates at least three episodes from a real-world perspective, giving good, bad and mixed marks to the show’s writing staff.) but seldom becomes confusing. At least the authors of the book know when to give leeway to dramatic needs, as they often note that real-world practices would remove a lot of tension from the show.

Overall, though, they give good grades to E.R.’s medical accuracy. Viewers tuning in each week can be assured that most of what they see can happen in the real world. Exceptions are made for dramatic needs (allowing relatives in treatment rooms, over-incidence of thoracotomies) or from the show’s original genesis in the seventies (when producer Michael Crichton wrote the pilot episode). As the writers wryly note at the end of chapter Nine (a thorough debunking of the shocker episode “Love’s Labour Lost”), bad medicine might not be good for your professional credibility, but it can get you an Emmy.

But, obviously, the book isn’t an episode guide, and its true value resides in the “Medicine for dummies” (or “medicine for couch potatoes”) details. Successive chapters look at the organisation of an hospital, heart diseases, trauma, illness, drugs…

Even though the book is written by one bona-fide M.D. and an ex-medical center administrator, the book is unusually readable, even laugh-aloud funny at times. Chapters title reflect the overall unpretentious sense of fun: “Lightning can strike twice”, “Things not normally found in your body” (including the requisite risqué anecdotes), etc… The writing is brisk, and -we hope- technically exact. The briskness extends to the relative shortness of the book (barely 230 pages in large type), so hunt for this in used bookstores rather than pay full price.

For a Canadian already used to the idea of a government-subsidized health care system, the strangest chapter of the book is “Fast as McDonald at Tiffany Prices”, an examination of hospital costs complete with several itemized costs breakdown of typical E.R. interventions. Had a traffic accident? That’ll be 6,500$, buddy. The chapter veers dangerously close to blatant editorial, but remains one of the strongest piece of the book.

Well, almost as strong as the epilogue, which reminds readers that during one prime-time hour of television, there are on average 10,000 admissions to real Emergency Rooms across the country.

In any case, The Medicine of E.R. accomplishes both of its goals with a certain amount of distinction: It examines the TV show and uncompromisingly find the flaws in its depiction of medicine, and uses the show as a springboard to give out a good overview of the current Emergency Medicine system as practised in the mid-nineties in the United States. Good show.

Elvis Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia, Alanna Nash

Harper, 1995, 947 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-109336-X

As someone born in 1975, it can be daunting, at times, to figure out the enduring popularity of Elvis Presley, who died in 1978. While other figures of his era have since long passed away from common memory, his legacy only seems to grow with each passing year. Endless droves of imitators, burgeoning cults and a mind-bending array of memorabilia only contributes further to his mystique.

It’s a fair bet to say that the image of Elvis has since long been stripped away from the man who was Elvis. Seeing his image pop up as sort of an all-American symbol of decency can only make one wonder; who was the real Elvis Presley?

Indeed, a whole cottage industry has popped up around this question, in the form of various biographies written about the man. If Elvis isn’t the most written-about historical figure of the twentieth century, it’s not clear who is. (Okay; Hitler. Don’t argue a rhetorical question.) Most of the books about him, however, have been written with a differing degree of accuracy by people who were not necessarily closely associated with “The King”, or had direct financial interest in maintaining his continuing untarnished image. Elvis Presley: Confessions from the Memphis Mafia is different, being a 600-page collection of testimonies made by members of the “Memphis Mafia”, a group of personal assistants that travelled with Presley for most of his career. These ex-confidantes are now more akin to disgruntled veterans, and he book is their chance to set the record straight on what has previously been said about Elvis.

Indeed, the biggest asset of the book is its sense of authenticity. More than 95% of the book are direct quotations from three members of the “Memphis Mafia”, with occasional bridging comments by Nash and a special “guest appearance” by the wife of one of the co-authors. Nash’s sense of editing is superb, and the book truly is like sitting down with three Elvis experts and hearing them talk about their favourite subject. They provide a complete insider’s view of the true Elvis Presley, a socially maladjusted, pill-popping adult teenager whose personal integrity couldn’t begin to cope with the demands of fame inflicted on him by his musical talent.

As such, Elvis becomes a tragic figure in this book, someone who suffered from the untimely death of his mother, a bad manager (“Colonel” Tom Parker, who was actually an illegal immigrant terrified that someone would discover his secret and deliberately restrained Elvis’ career in consequence), an emotional dependency on chemicals, bad advice, deep-seated contradictions and a bunchload of psychological problems. His death is made predictable, even inescapable. Presley becomes a sacrifice to the price of popularity. (But not, interestingly enough, a heroic sacrifice; the Elvis Presley of this book is not someone you would pity or sympathise with)

Great stories in this book include Elvis’ presidential visit, his fascination with guns (and shooting thereof), his weird sexual fetish, his often illogical generosity, his financial problems, his military service in Germany, his reaction to his movies, etc…

Unfortunately, one get the sense that this is not an entry-level biography, as it spends a significant part of its time denouncing mistakes made by other books, tabloids and documentaries in trying to describe the true Elvis. The insider-speak of the three “mafiosos” gets obscure at time, though Nash makes a very good job of vulgarizing the most obscure elements for a wider audience. An impressively complete index completes the book and makes it eminently suitable for reference.

In a sense, Elvis Presley does achieve its goal in that I do not feel as if I have to read another biography about this rather loathsome singer ever again. As a bonus, I’ll be ready for next time someone ever tries to make of Elvis a saint that he so obviously wasn’t.

Supernova (2000)

(In theaters, January 2000) It’s not often that you’re disappointed by a film that’s better than you expected. But there’s an exception to be made for Supernova, yet another cheap January sci-fi release. Already famous for a troubled production history (including directors storming off the project and removing their names from the credits), Supernova had the potential of a modern trash classic, a film so bad that audiences could actually revel in its pure awfulness. Unfortunately, Supernova is actually not-so-bad, with adequate technical values and a plot that sustains interest for the full length of the film. The only really sore spot, for me, is the interior set design, which rivals Star Trek (The Original Series) for sheer illogic and apparent cheapness. (rows of blinking colored lights? Slanted glass corridors? Come on!) Not a good film, but not a truly disgusting one, and that’s too bad.

Titanic and the Making of James Cameron, Paula Parisi

Newmarket Press, 1998, 234 pages, US$14.95 tpb, ISBN 1-55704-365-5

As something of a cinephile and general movie buff, I can testify firsthand that few films of the nineties have known a fate as interesting as TITANIC. It was, first and foremost, a film by James Cameron, who had already proven his superb filmmaking abilities with such great movies like THE TERMINATOR, THE ABYSS, and TRUE LIES. It was also a film that reportedly underwent a troubled production, mostly through massive budget overruns caused by Cameron’s almost-maniacal perfectionism. Before it came out, everyone was already condemning it as one of history’s biggest bombs.

I reserved judgement until opening weekend, but from my own overwhelmingly positive reaction to the film, I knew that TITANIC would be an unqualified. History proceeded to confirm this feeling: TITANIC became the highest-grossing film of all times and swept through the Oscars like a runaway superliner. Now Titanic and the Making of James Cameron is a book-length description of the making of TITANIC, from initial concept to Oscar night.

This isn’t the first time someone writes a book about Cameron. Christopher Heard’s 1997 biography Dreaming Aloud actually makes a pretty nice prologue to Paula Parisi’s making-of-Titanic account, describing Cameron from his Kapuskasing boyhood to the verge of TITANIC’s filming. This book takes off from there.

But it’s a much, much better book than Heard’s poorly-researched compendium of past Cinefex articles. Parisi has obviously spent a lot of time with the principal actors of the TITANIC story, and the book is filled by original interview quotes and interesting snippets not heard anywhere else. The style is brisk, without nonsense, and pretty much of the level you’d expect to read in Premiere magazine. I spotted a few errors (John Woo doesn’t spell his name Wu and www.aint-it-cool.com obviously lacks the -news!) but these could be attributed to poor proofreading rather than an underlying lack of research.

Titanic ironically gives a better idea of the personal qualities of James Cameron than the other so-called biography. The manic filmmaker behind TITANIC is exposed as a ruthless perfectionist, driving others like he himself works; relentlessly. The book is riddled with statements about how people will finish a Cameron film hating the director, only to come back two, three years later when offered a position on a new film. Personal interviews color the narrative, and the reader can’t help but be impressed by the selfless devotion of James Cameron for his art.

Parisi’s book has a substantial advantage over most of the “Making-of” books out there; that of being written in hindsight. Rather than only highlight the money-making aspect of the account (would anyone write a full general-interest account of a mildly successful picture like, say, LOST IN SPACE?), this allows Parisi to research her subject in-depth, and to cover areas not normally discussed in official making-of accounts (like the music, or the editing, given that those usually take place even as the making-of book goes to press). Titanic is, in this regard, geared far more toward the film-geek library than your stereotypical female teenage TITANIC fan. Parisi is scathing when she needs to be, and the behind-the-scene details are fascinating, as we see, for instance, Leonardo DeCaprio whining about how his character isn’t complex or dark enough to be interesting.

Of course, Titanic won’t matter much to those who hated the film, loathe Cameron or otherwise don’t care too much about the subject. But for fans of the film, or Cameron aficionados like myself, Titanic is a much better piece of film journalism than you might expect from the mass of cheap commercial derivates spawned by the film. As a highly-detailed look at the making of a blockbuster film and the mildly-mad filmmaker genius behind it, this is a book worth reading.

Stuart Saves His Family (1995)

(On TV, January 2000) A predictable failure; it’s a film inspired by an Saturday Night Live sketch that -for some unfathomable reason- tries to be a family melodrama with a deadly serious earnestness. It features, among other things, a therapy session that plays without a laugh and ends on a note of defeat. Hardly what you’d expect to find, and the rest of the film isn’t necessarily more enjoyable. Protagonist Stuart Smalley is the type of falsely cheerful character you’d love to slap around, and the mixture of faint comedy and high family drama around him simply doesn’t mesh well. It can work if you find the characters interesting and sympathetic… but chances are that you won’t.

Stuart Little (1999)

(In theaters, January 2000) Remove the cute little computer-generated mouse protagonist, and there’s not much left to this film. A mostly-bland children’s film that truly depends on its special effects, Stuart Little is sufficiently sympathetic to make you smile all throughout, but not funny enough to elicit laughter among viewers above twelve. (There is one notable exception, a blackly hilarious police station scene that seems straight from another film: “Do you want to have it straight?”.) There are two rather good action scenes, competently milked for maximum effect. A good choice when there’s nothing else on TV, but not worth a great bother.

Selena (1997)

(On TV, January 2000) Not many people know the story of hispanic-american singer Selena, but this film does a creditable job of bringing to a wide public the unfortunate tale of a promising career cut short. Jennifer Lopez is radiant in the title role. (Lopez’s newfound singing career makes the film more interesting now than during its initial theatrical release) While the film doesn’t really break out of the biographical format, it does manage to create a perceptible sense of loss, and that’s more than good enough.

The Saint (1997)

(On TV, January 2000) About as unremarkable a piece of “thriller” cinema as it’s possible to find. Though I’m not familiar with the original TV series, I sure hope it was better than what was presented on-screen, which reeked of gimmicky (past trauma, character trademarks, fake spy tradetalk, etc…) devices. The techno-babble stinks, the romance isn’t special, the action set-pieces are non-existent. Only the interesting musical ambience and the charm of the two lead actors save this one from total memory wipe.

Chesapeake, James Michener

Fawcett, 1978, 1083 pages, C$3.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-449-24163-7

Is it possible for a saga to be under-whelming?

After all, the adjective seems to be an antithesis of its subject. A saga is almost, by definition, intended to be impressive; spanning dozens of years, involving scores of characters and moving through often-historical events, a saga should thrill, engross and sustain a deep and unshakeable awe from its audience. To deliver anything less is to cheat the reader out of time and, often, money. And yet, Chesapeake

It’s not as if James Michener doesn’t know how to write a saga. Without flashiness, he regularly outpaces Stephen King in page-counts, churning out thousand-pages bricks one after the other. His usual formula consists in taking a locale (Texas, Alaska, Mexico… or the Chesapeake Bay, obviously) and tracing back its history through a series of vignettes taking place at quasi-epochal stages. Mother, sons and grandchildren all figure preeminently, aging through the novel as a vast tapestry of events is slowly built through vignette-chapters.

Chesapeake is, without a shadow of an argument, a saga. It starts out in 1583, as an Indian is exiled from his tribe and forced to settle down near the Chesapeake Bay, becoming the leader of another tribe. Then we move on to 1608, as Englishmen John Steed also settles down the Chesapeake and start building his trading empire. Events accumulate, and major “characters” arrive at the Chesapeake; the Turlocks, Paxmores, Carters and Caveneys successively join the narrative.

As this is a saga extending over hundred of years, it’s a distinguishing feature of Chesapeake that families, not individuals, are the defining characters of the novel. Steeds are the righteous aristocracy; Turlocks the low-life, cunning pirates; Paxmores the peace-loving religious artisans (as if the family name wasn’t enough of a giveaway); Carters the token blacks; Caveneys the Irish lawmen. Nature or nurture? Michener melts families into monolithic entities. As the chapters keep killing off characters, we only need to glance at the family name to have an indication of the moral fabric of the individual. (In general, that is: Michener takes some pleasure in perverting a few individuals, but they usually go back to their family’s ways, as is the case with Paul Steed or Teach Turlock.)

The biggest problem of Chesapeake isn’t there, however. It’s the impression that save for the meaty middle section (with the afore-mentioned Paul Steed and “Captain Teach” Turlock), all of Chesapeake‘s individual chapters are vignettes that no not necessarily set up bigger and more interesting conflicts later down the novel. In fact, the last chapters are more like snapshots of life across the Chesapeake rather than true climactic unfolding of events. You would expect hundred of years’ worth of bottled-up family feuds, but instead you get a fifty-page short story on hunting dogs. Whaaat?

Michener’s main failing contributes to highlight the other annoyances that sour Chesapeake‘s impression: Michener’s lengthy apologetic exposé of slavery and discrimination against blacks. (Though one must favourable mention his unflinching description of slave trading) The futility of the “Voyage” passages once they stop bringing new characters to the Chesapeake Bay. The absolutely massive padding of the whole story. The multiple lacks of latter payoffs from the earlier setups…

Let’s not deny that from a reading-on-the-bus standpoint, Chesapeake delivers the goods in clear, readable prose. It’s as the novel draws at a close and that no threads are tied up that the overall futility of the novel becomes clear. Saga it technically is, but masterpiece it truly isn’t.

Magnolia (1999)

(In theaters, January 2000) As with 1998’s The Thin Red Line, there’s a great quasi-classic film inside Magnolia, but it’s smothered by at least forty-five extra minutes of padding. Clocking at more than three hours, director P.T. Anderson’s third feature is undoubtedly an ambitious film, juggling nine quirky main characters, a coincidence-filled storyline and several high-intensity emotional moments. But it’s also exasperatingly over-indulgent in its writing, editing and pacing: Characters ceaselessly break into repetitive, obscenity-filled monologues of little value. By the time a dying character is confessing a litany of past sins, most viewers will be checking their watches. This isn’t to say, however, that this is a bad film: The first fifteen minutes are a blast, as is the concluding rain scene. Anderson has an awe-inspiring mastery of directing (the film is filled with clever cinematographic tricks) and when Magnolia gets going, it truly is impressive. Expect film enthusiasts to dissect this one for years to come. (Favorite detail: The studio security officer taking away the “Exodus 8:2” sign, as if to protect the audience from spoilers… Favorite shot: Inside the ambulance crash…) But, sheesh, someone shoot the editor responsible for this mess. And beat up the people who didn’t suggest to Anderson that his script was perhaps a tad too long.

Junior (1994)

(On TV, January 2000) Interesting as it starts from a very dangerous premise (male scientist makes himself pregnant) and completely defuses all possibly controversial elements, ending with a final products that’s about as challenging as plain pablum. Arnold Schwarzenegger embarrasses himself as the pregnant scientist, though Emma Thompson makes the best of her role. Lousy gags and juvenile humor pepper the script. Not really recommended.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

(In theaters, January 2000) A puzzling film. It has a competent story, numerous good special effects, good laughs and a great concept; what if aliens came to earth and sought the help of our SF actors? (Never mind that this exact premise was the basis of 1998’s Diplomatic Act, by Peter Jurasik and Williams H. Keith Jr.) It’s such a can’t-lose premise that even the lousiest writers couldn’t mess it up. And that’s pretty much what happens here: Despite the inherent comic potential of parodying Star Trek and Trek Fandom with the help of Tim “Buzz Lightyear” Allen and Sigourney “Ellen Ripley” Weaver, Galaxy Quest delivers the goods in a strictly pedestrian fashion, never for an instant getting really wild. But at least it delivers, which is more than one could say for many summer blockbusters. Which leads us to Galaxy Quest‘s biggest mystery; why the heck was it released in the Christmas deluge when it fit so perfectly in a summer lineup? Oh well…

(Second viewing, In French, On TV, May 2001) This holds up rather well to a second viewing, especially given the lowered expectations. When not expecting the ultimate Science Fiction TV-Show parody, it plays like a strong, if formulaic, comedy. Most of the actors do a great job, most notably Tim Allen and Tony Shaloub. Special effects are good, especially the rock monster. Some of the script’s most weepy/expected moments (The “We’re actors” confession, the teen-called-to-help segment) are more annoying. I still wish that it would have been a wittier comedy, but it’s still quite good as it is.

Return to Sodom and Gomorrah, Charles Pellegrino

Avon, 1994 (1995 reprint), 386 pages, C$16.00 tpb, ISBN 0-380-72633-5

A few years ago, I remember seeing a TV special that purported to explain the mysteries of the Bible through scientific investigation. Problem was, this show was obvious produced by fundamentalist authorities. The explanations were so ludicrously far-fetched that my basic feeling was that it was far simpler to blame the miracles on tall stories than to actually try to give them a rational, scientific explanation.

Now here comes Charles Pellegrino, with a book that’s ostensibly about “solving the Bible’s ancient mysteries through archaeological discovery.” Normally, I wouldn’t have even picked up the book, but then you’ve got to realize that Charles Pellegrino is no ordinary writer: His three Science-Fiction novels (Marching to Valhalla, The Killing Star and Dust) were deeply impressive work from a writer who obviously brimmed with innovative concepts, and could present them in an intriguing fashion.

Pellegrino is obviously someone with far-ranging interests. His professional credits cover a wide range of accomplishments, from anti-matter rocket designs to paleontological thought experiments that led to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. On top of accomplished scientific and literary careers, he’s also an archaeologist, and Return to Sodom and Gomorrah is nothing less but a book-length essay about middle-eastern archaeology.

The Bible elements remains, but Pellegrino (as a confirmed agnostic) works in a radically different fashion from that TV Special of my youth; he uses the Bible as a way of demonstrating what he’s seen in the field, not the other way around. And most often, the archaeological record is even more fantastic than the Bible itself.

Take Sodom, for instance. Archaeologists have discovered a city that roughly corresponded to the biblical city of Sodom. But that city presented them with a puzzle: It seemed to have been abandoned in a hurry, and left untouched for several years afterward, even though other fertile places nearby had been re-colonized very quickly. Even more mysterious; the remains of the city appeared to have burned quite thoroughly, this despite the fact that there were no flammable materials in the city, dried mud being the construction material of choice. Charred animal bones everywhere, even though it takes a formidable amount of energy to char bones.

Pellegrino and his friends in the field came up with a rather spectacular explanation: Underneath most of the middle east, as we know, lies multiple deposits of flammable hydrocarbons. What if, spurred by continental plaque movement, one large deposit made its way to the surface, like a natural tar pit? What if it first came out as natural gas -the lightest part of a petrol deposit-, and encountered an open cooking flame?

Instant firestorm, fuelled by natural geological pressure and instantly lethal. Completely destroying habitable land. Typical Hollywood blockbuster premise, right there. Only a theory, of course, but doesn’t it sound good?

Return to Sodom and Gomorrah is filled with discoveries of the sort. From evidence of a mitochondrial Eve to the common volcanic origins of both Palestinians and Israelis, passing by an explanation of the Dead Sea Scroll controversy and a huge amount of lucidly told ancient history, Pellegrino truly delivers the goods with this book. And he leaves plenty to the imagination too, as be regularly tosses off tantalizing hints of personal exploits (randomly mixing fire-fights, nuclear accidents and personal vendettas) with mind-blowing bigger issues. (Are we destined to create our evolutionary successors? Are we repeating the environmental mistakes that previously destroyed other civilizations?) Pellegrino is fluent not only in past history or prehistoric lingo, but also in the jargon of astrophysics and the vernacular of SF, and the result is simply unique.

This is a book that will stimulate your thought processes, push you to buy everything else that Pellegrino wrote, and reconsider the Bible with a keener eye. Trying to make it justice is almost impossible; like most great scientific vulgarizations, you have to read it to truly feel it. Great reading for persons actively looking for their next big idea rush.