Dust, Charles Pellegrino

Avon, 1998, 387 pages, C$19.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97308-1

There is a fascination about contemplating the unthinkable. Survivalists, civil safety officials, prophets and science-fiction writers all depend in large part on this fascination. Somehow, imagining that everything we hold dear -including our lives- could be snatched away at any time makes us appreciate what we have even more.

Yet, destroying the world is easy, at least for the fertile imaginations of the latter twentieth century. From the oh-so-very-sixties retro nuclear apocalypse, we’ve moved on to plagues (King’s The Stand), celestial objects impact (Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer), Black Holes (Bear’s The Forge of God), Alien Invasions (Again, The Forge of God) and the like. J.G.Ballard has even written four books dealing with end-of-the-world scenarios. At this point, it would seem unlikely to find a new and exciting way to end the world, but that’s exactly what Charles Pellegrino does with Dust.

This time, the novel start with a deadly whimper as hundreds are eaten alive by swarming clouds of mites. But, as Pellegrino makes it very clear, this is only a symptom of a deeper problem; the disappearance of insects.

Sounds like a doubleplusgood thing to you? Not quite. Pellegrino neatly dissects Gaia’s ecosystem with his clear and incisive imagination. Even early on, the novel makes no secret of the fact that this is The End. As in; no more human race. We’re going the way of the dinosaur. Ecological collapse isn’t quite as frightening as the resulting social, politic and economic descent in anarchy.

But why are the insects disappearing? That’s one surprise best left between Dust‘s covers. As he had done with the concept of relativistic bombs in his previous solo novel Flying to Valhalla, Pellegrino pulls straight existential horror out of simple facts and reasonable extrapolations. “A novel even scarier than Jaws” blurbs Arthur C. Clarke. This is no inflated hype.

Dust is so stuffed with surprising factoids, ideas and concepts that the twenty-five pages scientific afterword is more than welcome. Pellegrino loves to have ideas and play with them; we should be grateful that he also loves to share them.

As a novel, most will agree that Dust isn’t quite up for the Pulitzer. Characters are annoyingly similar to one another and rarely given the chance to distinguish themselves, the action is sometime jerkily shown (when it isn’t simply told rather than shown), the dialogue -while seemingly authentic for scientists- is a bit stiff, the plotting has imperfections, etc… But given the density of Dust‘s narrative -it packs the end of the world in less than 400 pages- and the excellence of everything else, it really doesn’t matter. Readers of hard-SF, techno-thrillers and other high-fact-density fiction will find here exactly what they wish for: a good, scary, unflinching and eminently plausible end-of-the-world novel.

As luck has it, Avon book is offering this full-size hardcover novel at a bargain price (16$ US, 20$ Can.) Rush to your bookstore and order it if they don’t have it; it’s worth every penny. It’s frightening, thrilling, thought-provoking, ironic, brilliant and stunningly entertaining.

Dust offers a shocking contrast with the usual Hollywood-produced disaster story. Everything is convincingly explained, well-developed and brought to its logical conclusion. There is no last-minute reprieve, but if Dust is implacable, it is not entirely without optimism. Somehow, this is a happier, more satisfying ending than “Boom went the asteroid and they all lived happily ever after.”

(Keep your eyes open for the lovely mention of Fahrenheit 451.)

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