Blasphemy, Douglas Preston

Forge, 2007, 415 pages, C$28.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1105-4

Here’s the plot: In Nevada, a gifted billionaire-scientist has built a super-collider that will allow him to reach back to the conditions that existed at the beginning of the universe. As the inauguration of the machine is slowed down by technical problems, some religious groups politicize the issue. As delays and controversies heighten, the US government send an investigator to find out what’s going on. Deaths occur, and a full-scale mobilization of religious followers against the scientific project erupts even as the scientists on-site glimpse something unexpected in the first results of their experiments. Something is communicating with them via high-energy physics, something that claims to be of divine origins…

Here’s the spoiler-free review: Douglas Preston’s Blasphemy is a techno-thriller that tackles issues of science and religion, re-using characters from Preston’s previous novel Tyrannosaur Canyon. It’s professionally written, but flawed: it may look daring at times, but it’s really reaching for the hoariest compromise in sight. The conclusion contradicts much of what has gone on until then.

WARNING: Anything else will be a spoiler, so you may want to skip ahead to the next review.

If you’re still with us, a short recapitulation of the place of religious faith in American genre fiction may be necessary: While recent volleys of militant atheism have done much to move the goalposts of any discussion of religious belief in the contemporary United States, most genre fiction tiptoes around such questions as so to accommodate the sensibilities of a sizable minority of believers for whom criticizing the very notion of faith is tantamount to heresy. Most genre discussions of phenomenons that may-or-may-not be manifestations of religious beliefs ultimately resolves to a curious compromise in which nearly everything is explained away as science except for a tiny piece that may-or-may-not be divine intervention. Few authors will claim a clear stake in the does-God-exist debate. There are exceptions, of course (Left Behind on one side, many of Arthur C. Clarke’s novels on the other one), but the pattern is as annoying as it’s universal, from any of the Jesus-cloned thrillers out there (see Glenn Kleier’s The Last Days) onward.

So the tension in reading Blasphemy, at least for jaded readers, is in wondering whether Preston will clearly commit himself, or try another variation on the old “Aw, sucks, all of you can be right if you want” dodge. To Preston’s credit, he does manage to keep things in suspense for a while: the super-collider seems to open up a singularity of supernatural capabilities, up to and including an all-knowing entity communicating with them via a computer link.

But there are a few more twists and turns to the tale, especially when Wyman Ford (returning after Tyrannosaur Canyon) corners the brilliant scientist behind the entire project and manages to make him admit that most of it was completely made up, taking advantage of a few parlor tricks in order to create a new science-based religion. But just as we think that the rug’s been pulled in one direction, there has to be an added “Strange, though, it said a lot of things I never intended.” that sends the novel in comfortable maybe-land. (Yet the epilogue makes it clear that God moves in mysterious ways.)

There’s plenty of other stuff to discuss, such as Preston’s final ham-fisted way of portraying religious believers as bloodthirsty idiots willing to transfer their allegiances to a new religion (by the millions!) in a matter of a few days. Or how the book leaves Wyman Ford in a science-fictional world altered by the events of the novel (but don’t bet against a sequel that ignores it all). Ultimately, though, the title suggests that Preston is really about raising a stink, creating false opposition between science and faith, using the oldest non-compromise in the bag of tricks to provide a pat conclusion to satisfy everyone. It’s nothing new, nothing really unnerving. The novel tries to have it both ways, in the time-honored tradition of the hardcover popular bestseller. For all of its other faults, at least it’s a fast and easy read.

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