Ghosts of Vesuvius, Charles Pellegrino

Morrow, 2004, 489 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97310-3

Charles Pellegrino’s two biggest gifts as a scientific vulgarizer are his ability to make unlikely connections between seemingly disparate elements, and his tendency to extract the last drops of dramatic intensity from these connections. Used in moderations, they can take any readers’ breath away. Overused, they can transform a book in melodrama. Ghosts of Vesuvius, Pellegrino’s latest and most ambitious work, succeeds despite nearly tripping over these elements of Pellegrino’s style.

Regular readers of these reviews already know the tremendous amount of respect that I have for Pellegrino as both a Science Fiction novelist (Dust, The Killing Star) and as a scientific vulgarizer (Ghosts of the Titanic, Chariots of Apollo, Return to Sodom and Gomorrah). I was delighted beyond words to see him briefly featured in James Cameron’s documentary GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS. He’s one of the very few writer on my buy-on-sight list; please colour the following review accordingly.

A quick look at Pellegrino’s bibliography will reveal a fascination for catastrophe: Life on Earth as we know it ends in both of his solo novels while two of his non-fiction books are entirely about the Titanic. In his latest work, Pellegrino tackles nothing less than the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius and, two thousand years later, the tragic events of 9/11. In both cases, Pellegrino goes in the field: first as a member of the team digging and analyzing the remnants of Pompeii and, later, as part of the team investigating the remnants of the WTC. (And as fans may guess, there’s also new Titanic-related material here and there in the book; see GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS for details..)

The subtitle of the book says it all: A New Look at the Last Days of Pompeii, How Towers Fall and Other Strange Connections. A mere summary of the high points of the book fails to do justice at the incredible stuff Pellegrino pulls out of the fire: A dramatic explanation of how Pompeii died, complete with a lesson in high-energy physics. The incredible phenomenon of “shock cocoons” in which people can escape, unscathed, from the worst catastrophes. (Pellegrino himself being a case study in these matters) The heart-wrenching stories suggested by the excavations in Pompeii. The unbelievable events surrounding the collapse of the World Trade Center.

But as good as this material is, it’s never better than when Pellegrino starts making links between then and now, between this and that, between there and here. Roman and American arrogance, the fragility of existence on a geologically active Earth, the exploration of space and sea are all tied together in a strand of human history that does much to eliminate differences between all. Ghosts of Vesuvius is awe-inspiring in the way great science books often are, by making the obvious marvellous again.

But Pellegrino, as a humanist, also manages the opposite trick, by finding the human touch in exceptional events. Slaves swallowed by a pyroclastic cloud or firefighters atomized by a falling tower; all are ordinary people in extraordinary situations. There’s plenty of grief and hope in this book, and it doesn’t matter if the tragedies happened three years or two thousand years ago.

It adds up to an impressive, often disjointed five hundred pages. Pellegrino writes in a scatter-shot stream-of-consciousness style that makes the greatest of connections but can be hard to follow if you’re expecting a structured work. Thankfully, he doesn’t allow the drama to become melodrama, but the tremendous amount of heartfelt sentiment in this book may surprise those expecting a more dryly clinical work. (There’s also a good index, if that helps)

Fans of Pellegrino will be delighted to find out that the man has been up to much since his last book (Ghosts of the Titanic, 2000) and get even more tantalizing hints about the infamous “Pellegrino Effect”. Newer readers may have to work a bit harder to get used to the flow of the book, but once that’s done, only one thing is obvious: Ghosts of Vesuvius is an exceptional book combining hard science and heart-felt sentiment. Pellegrino triumphs once again. So, when’s the next book due?

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