Charles Pellegrino

The Last Train from Hiroshima, Charles Pellegrino

The Last Train from Hiroshima, Charles Pellegrino

Henry Holt, 2010, 367 pages, C$33.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-8050-8796-3

When I ordered The Last Train from Hiroshima from in February 2010, the media frenzy around the book had just started: Allegations about the book’s dubious veracity had started to flare up, with numerous experts identifying many mistakes in the narrative.  By the time the book arrived at my house, Pellegrino’s academic credentials had been debunked and the publisher had announced that it was pulling all copies of the book from shelves.  In some sense, my copy of the book had ridden its own Last Train from Amazon: Even today, Pellegrino’s latest remains unavailable from either or, being sold by other vendors at premiums making my purchase look like a savvy investment.

But I’m not the smart one in this story.  Frankly, I ordered the book not because of the controversy, but because I’ve been a Pellegrino fan ever since his 1998 Science Fiction novel Dust.  This had led me, through the years, to most of his bibliography, including a number of very enjoyable non-fiction books.  I won’t try to re-write my reviews: You can go explore my “Charles Pellegrino” tag to point and laugh at my credulity regarding Pellegrino’s so-called non-fiction.

As I microwave a platter of crow for public delectation, I will at least acknowledge having had some doubts as to whether Pellegrino’s brand of emotionally-driven scientific non-fiction was entirely truthful.  There were so many uncanny anecdotes buried in the text, so many dramatic moments, so many convenient coincidences that I asked knowledgeable people at SF conventions whether Pellegrino was entirely legit, and wasn’t entirely reassured by the answers.

When the Last Train from Hiroshima story exploded, a lot of people started scrutinizing Pellegrino’s grandiose claims.  Did he really provide inspiration to Michael Crichton’s dinosaur-cloning technique in Jurassic Park?  Is he really a renegade Ph.D. from New Zealand?  Tall tales are tall tales –but when they’re supposed to establish credibility for someone writing scientific non-fiction, they upset the presumption of expertise that readers tacitly bestow upon writers of works informing us about the world.  And once the first domino falls…

I was frankly reluctant to read Last Train from Hiroshima for the same reasons I don’t usually read older scientific non-fiction: So many things have changed since then that I would be putting bad information in my head.  Would reading Last Train from Hiroshima skew what I thought I knew about the American nuclear bombardments of Japan?

There’s no good way to read a book about nuclear holocaust when it comes with a constant mental warning saying “All of this may be made-up”.  True to his previous books, Pellegrino milks science and history to their most dramatic extent, putting as much feeling in the narrative as technical details.  Readers approaching the book without prior knowledge of the controversy may feel a twinge or two of pure empathy for those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to say nothing of the survivors fated to lives cut short by radioactive fallout.  For those who suspect that a good chunk of the book is made up, though, it’s a harder sell.

Much of The Last Train from Hiroshima controversy surrounds the testimony of Joseph Fuoco, whose surprising claims about the delivery of the American bombs have been cast in doubt by just about every knowledgeable military expert.  Alas –and this really hurts—readers eventually notice that most of the American material in Pellegrino’s book is sole-sourced to Fuoco.  Cut that out and you may as well have half a book.  The scant sourcing of The Last Train from Hiroshima through a thin bibliography might as well douse the flames of doubt.  Add to the that the other questions regarding the content of the book (including Japanese testimony we might as well know nothing about), and the only thing to do is to wrap the book in heavy opaque “Memetic Hazard” tape and shelve it alongside other potentially harmful material as occult woo-woo.  It’s the only sane response.

And if you think that the damage is limited to just Last Train from Hiroshima, you’re fooling yourself: the doubts extend retroactively to every other non-fiction book that Pellegrino has even touched.  The Jesus Family Tomb had already raked up its share of controversies along with the 9/11 section of Ghosts of Vesuvius, but the one that really rankles is Chariots for Apollo, which I had taken to be a pretty good history of the Apollo program; what’s the quotient of crap-to-fact in that one?

And that’s the true price to pay for even a few mistakes in non-fiction books: It casts the entirety of Pellegrino’s work in question, no matter how meritorious it can otherwise be.  On the other hand, I’m still allowed to like Pellegrino’s Science Fiction.  Now there’s an irony here that I may savour for a while.

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?

Unearthing Atlantis, Charles Pellegrino

Avon, 1991 (2001 reprint), 355 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-81044-1

The legend of Atlantis has fascinated many over centuries, all the way from Plato to us. Could it be possible for an advanced civilisation to disappear, just like that? Through the rumors, the stories, the myth, what is the true story that inspired Atlantis, if there was one? Are there any lessons to be learned from the fall of Atlantis?

In Unearthing Atlantis, Charles Pellegrino applies his considerable archaeological experience, writing talent and gift for vulgarization to give us an overview of what we think we know, at this moment, about the Minoan civilization, the buried city of Thera and how it all ties into the myth of Atlantis.

It doesn’t stop there, of course. Pellegrino is pathologically incapable of sticking to one subject and Unearthing Atlantis takes delight in rummaging through Science’s entire bag of tricks. A gifted polymath, Pellegrino can discourse as easily on anti-matter rockets, archaeology or palaeontology. The result is unique, and a testimony to how much fun the pure acquisition of knowledge can be, both for the scientists and the average readers.

This, unfortunately, can have an unfortunate scattering effect on the unity of the book’s structure. Unearthing Atlantis goes one way, then another and then in yet another direction. Fans of the author’s previous books already know this, but this can be disconcerting for a new reader. Fortunately, a complete index will help if you want to track down specific passages quickly.

It’s not as if your attention will wander, even if Pellegrino’s narrative does: the stories he has to tell are fascinating. From the memorable bio portrait of the driven archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos to the “time gate” (an intellectual device possibly borrowed from Pellegrino’s own scarce Time Gate book, which I haven’t yet read.), here’s a vulgarizator who knows how to communicate the passion of science and the excitement of discovery.

Pellegrino fans will appreciate that this book once more ties into his pet obsessions to a degree or another—most notably the Titanic wreck. This 2001 re-edition of Unearthing Atlantis is touted on the author’s web site as the “uncensored version”, which probably refers to the carbon-dating controversy in Chapter 11. (I believe that it is in Return to Sodom and Gomorrah that Pellegrino explains the highly adverse reaction of Egyptologists to even the suggestion that some of their canon might not match with independent carbon dating.) Fun personal anecdotes pepper the narrative, from Pellegrino’s run-in with Prince Charles’ security forces (an event casually mentioned in his novel Flying to Valhalla) to an amusing desert drama:

”…one Egyptian scholar became so disturbed by news that some of her pottery dates may have to be rewritten that she began to confide in me some chillingly detailed suicide fantasies. Since I was depending on this woman to get me out of the desert alive, I decided not to press the issue. As far as I can recall, she is the only person ever to have succeeded in shutting me up.” [P.265]

In short, it’s another wonderful book by Pellegrino and a perfect example of good scientific vulgarization. Even as far as Atlantis is concerned, Pellegrino is careful to play down evidence of catastrophic destruction in the end of the Minoan civilization, noting that the empire was already showing signs of collapse.

Still, it’s a lot of fun to speculate about a relatively advanced civilization, ready to spring forward yet destroyed by a freak geological event. Otherwise, how different would have been history? Might we already be standing on an extra-solar planet by now? Maybe. Who knows? With enough “What if?”s, it’s easy to make the legend of Atlantis stretch all the way from the past to our future.

Her Name, Titanic, Charles Pellegrino

Avon, 1988 (1990 reprint), 283 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-70892-2

Regular readers of these reviews will certainly remember my overall affection for the work of Charles Pellegrino. Here’s one author who, in my humble opinion, has rarely done wrong. (Notwithstanding his curiously inept Star Trek novel) Over the past few years, I have read one Pellegrino book after another, always managing to avoid his best-known work, Her Name, Titanic.

After reading the “sequel”, Ghosts of the Titanic, this seemed like an increasingly ridiculous situation. Fortunately, I was able to secure a copy of his 1988 bestseller and dug in, knowing that I’d get my time’s worth of pure enjoyment.

Once again, I wasn’t disappointed. Her Name, Titanic is fully the equal of Pellegrino’s other non-fiction books. Ghosts of the Titanic had a scattershot approach to the subject, leading me to speculate a more strictly chronological run-through of the voyage for the first volume. Fortunately, this isn’t so.

In fact, if you want an overview of the events surrounding the Titanic, you’d be better off watching the film. (Though the graphic inset between pages 92-93 will do just fine) Her Name, Titanic is as much about the 1985 re-discovery of the sunken relic as it is about the 1912 catastrophe. We’ll spend as much time with Robert Ballard and the Argo as with the ill-fated passengers of the ocean liner.

Perhaps more interestingly, we’ll spend all of this time with Charles Pellegrino himself. Her Name, Titanic is the centerpiece of his literary output; all of his other books refer to it in one way or another. (This is unfair actually; all of Pellegrino’s books refer to each other in what are often very, very twisted ways.) His books are unlike any others in that they present a glimpse in the scientific strangeness that’s just lurking beneath the surface of our humdrum lives. History isn’t something that happens in the past for Pellegrino; he’ll uncover jaw-dropping links between seemingly disparate events and present them with a passion that will leave you breathless. His writing style is very deliberately dramatic, though never without a deeply respectful quality. You might not be moved to tears by Her Name, Titanic, but don’t be surprised to find a few lumps in your throat.

The tangents explored by Pellegrino as almost as fascinating as the events themselves. Pellegrino is a man of eclectic interests, and he effortlessly links the Titanic to World War One, to the Challenger Shuttle disaster, to the life of Bob Ballard, to Apollo 11, to obsession. He admits in the introduction that he’s become obsessed with the ship, and this is, perhaps most of all, a book about this obsession. (Indeed, one of the most memorable passages of the book is a conversation with members of the Alvin crew who don’t share this obsession; “It was a job and we did it the best we could.” [P.221]

But don’t worry; by the end of the book, you’ll share Pellegrino’s fascination; I certainly did. His effective writing style, love for oddball details, ability to effectively present important information and keenness of mind will have you reading well after the point when you should reasonably stop. Heavens help you if you have the sequel nearby after you’re done with Her Name, Titanic, because you won’t be able to stop. Any Titanic buff pretty much has to read this one, and even casual reader will want to grab this book. It’s powerful writing, and memorable reading.

Ghosts of the Titanic, Charles Pellegrino

Avon, 2000, 339 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-72472-3

Now that the TITANIC movie has come and gone on big screens, VHS and DVD, it seems as if everyone’s an expert on the subject, citing diagrams and expert advice on exactly how the Big Ship sank. In the wake of the film’s boffo success (biggest moneymaker ever, anyone?), shelves of books on the subject were ransacked by new catastrophe enthusiasts.

One of those books was Charles Pellegrino’s Her name, Titanic. Faithful readers of these reviews may remember that I’ve been a Pellegrino enthusiast for some time, hence this review. Ghosts of the Titanic is a sequel of sort to Her Name, Titanic, but don’t worry if, like me, you haven’t read the first volume; the sequel is mostly self-supporting.

Some knowledge of the Titanic disaster is essential, though, as Pellegrino wastes no time explaining the basics. (This being said, one of the book’s highlights is the illustrated timeline of events running from page 176 to 195.) In some ways, this is a post-TITANIC book, immediately accessible if you’ve seen the film. James Cameron even wrote the foreword.

And what Pellegrino says is really “what the movie left out”: An examination of the current state of the wreck, the likely composition of the iceberg, the fire that had been raging deep in the ship’s structure during the whole trip. Pellegrino tells us stories that couldn’t fit in the three-hour movie, such as the efforts to keep the electricity running and Colonel Gracie’s narrow escape.

Using new testimonies, computer models and scientific evidence (some of which he himself collected during his visits to the wreck), Pellegrino uncovers yet more details about the events of April 14, 1912. One of his most fascinating findings is the fate of the Grand Stairway: Contemporary examinations of the wreck have so far failed to find it—leading James Cameron to theorize that the massive wooden structure could have ripped free of the sinking wreck and floated to the surface. A finding, ironically enough, supported by his experiences while filming TITANIC, as the Stairway replica started to rip itself from the set once submerged.

This anecdote, like many others, shows Pellegrino’s knack for finding the most astonishing things in places we wouldn’t expect. Coincidentally or not, his misfortune for being in a weird place at a weird time also pops up with alarming frequency and spine-chilling effects. (Here he describes missing TWA flight 800, and being cured of a fatal disease in extremis by one of his friends. I’m still waiting to hear more details about the nuclear device “accidental energetic disassembly” he survived, briefly mentioned here once again.)

All throughout Ghosts of the Titanic, Pellegrino exhibits a heart-wrenching sensitivity that will put a lump in your throat. It’s not easy to publish a book on this subject without somehow coming across as an opportunistic fellow, but Pellegrino’s mourning feels genuine and the result is a book that never seems exploitative.

Pellegrino’s polymath familiarity with widely divergent fields of study also gives him a unique expertise to slip in and out of the strict subject of the book. Perhaps the most fascinating section of the book is Chapter 5, when he examines “rusticles”, iron structures formed by the bacteria slowly eating the tons of metal in the wreck. Not only does he conclude that the Titanic will eventually disappear (there goes the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s The Ghosts of the Grand Banks!), but he also describes how the rusticles structures are evolving internal circulation systems… from unicellular organisms! As the ultimate kicker, he suggests that new medical research stemming from the study of rusticles might eventually save more lives that were claimed by the Titanic tragedy.

In short, Ghosts of the Titanic is another success for Pellegrino, another savvy mix of science fact and good heart-felt writing. Give it a try if you’re interested in the author or the subject matter. If you don’t think you’ve had enough of that subject yet, Pellegrino promises us, in the epilogue, that Ghosts of the Titanic is the second volume in a trilogy he expects to complete in 2010-2012. Given what he managed to tell us this time around, I can’t wait.

Chariots for Apollo, Charles R. Pellegrino & Joshua Stoff

Avon, 1985 (1998 reprint), 320 pages, C$19.50 tpb, ISBN 0-380-80261-9

Looking back over a span of thirty years, humankind’s effort to land a few of its own on the Moon seems nothing short of incredible. To think that “these people” in “that time” could do such miracles with “their technology” borders on the miraculous. Whereas today’s space program is moribund, dogged by budget cuts, drastically reduced ambitions and a surplus of overcautiousness, the effort to go to the moon shines on as a pinnacle of human ingenuity and doggedness.

A good way to re-live this whole era is to grab a copy of Charles Pellegrino and Joshua Stoff’s Chariots for Apollo. This book, originally published in 1985 (“immediately going out of print with the Challenger explosion” [P.xiv] reminisce the authors) has recently been re-edited in trade paperback format by Avon books, and readers will find that the book has lost none of its interest. Indeed, given that fifteen more years have passed since the oft-overlooked first edition, most will appreciate this “new” book that has the advantage of hindsight and a “what-happened-to-them” afterword. Part time-capsule (several of the people interviewed for the book have died since 1985) and part historical work, Chariots of Apollo does an exceptional job at representing the low and high dramas of the Apollo era.

Most histories of the space program will spend time in explaining the basics, or will focus on a historical heroic-figure approach. Pellegrino and Stoff are writing for a different audience: One that pretty much already knows, in general terms, what happened during that time. Furthermore, the authors admit in the prologue in focusing their attention on the overlooked heroes of the space program: The engineers and low-level technicians who actually designed and built the machines that carried Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon. Chariots for Apollo is a homage to the thousands of ordinary people doing an ordinary job in order to fulfill an extraordinary goal; put humankind on the moon.

More specifically, it focuses on the people who designed, built and tested the Lunar Expedition Module (LEM), the tiny, brittle, crucial piece of machinery that covered the last few miles between Earth and the Moon. It has become an iconic piece of machinery, with its spider-like shape that is immediately recognizable even today. Chariots for Apollo, as the title indicates, spends a lot of time behind the scenes at Grumman, describing the laborious process which lead to the construction of the LEMs.

There are anecdotes aplenty. From the ultra-meticulous security/safety procedures (despite which a twenty-four-foot extension cord was lost in the LEM clean room…) (despite which a squirrel found its way in the clean room and had to be shot-gunned) (despite which LEMs were physically turned upside-down to allow loose part to fall out) to oodles of near-dangerous incidents that were solved in the nick of time. (Only on Apollo 11: the glycenol lubricant crystallized in orange slush, soldering repairs had to be made on LM fuel lines days before the launch, the LEM nearly blew up from unanticipated fuel pressure seconds after landing, Armstrong accidentally broke the ignition arming switch…) The book is filled with details that even moderate space buffs like your reviewer have never seen anywhere else.

The result is a beautifully written book, filled with fascinating details and honest human-interest stories (like the various mementoes put on the ship by construction personnel) that warmly illustrate the magnitude of humanity’s achievement in going on the moon. Maybe a bit short, and not comprehensive enough. (it is rather too focused on the LEM given the richness of related content and the misleading cover) A bit melodramatic too, but that makes for vivid reading. Like most of Charles Pellegrino’s books, this one is worth grabbing on sight.

Solid reading about the moon program which will leave you with plenty of questions to learn more, and one overriding concern: When are we going back there?

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.

Star Trek: The Next Generation #50: Dyson Sphere, Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski

Pocket, 1999, 235 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-54173-0

Star Trek has never been known as being particularly rigorous in its scientific accuracy. Hard-SF has never been praised for its overwhelming attention to characters. So what happens when two of today’s hottest hard-SF writers team up to write a Star Trek novel? Dashing all hopes of a Trek novel with the usually well-defined TNG characters dealing with accurate science, the result ends up combining the flaws of both sub-genres.

Faithful readers of these reviews, if any, undoubtedly noticed my general admiration for the novels of both Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski, both of whom have written exciting novels of hard-Science-Fiction that traded characters development for clever ideas and plotting. Together, they have written The Killing Star, a pretty good modern novel of alien invasion that combined ideas and themes proper to both writers.

I found myself in the unusual position of anxiously waiting for a Trek novel when I learned that they were busy at work on a follow-up to TNG’s episode Relics. That episode, as long-time Trek fans remember well, signaled not only the return of Trek’s original engineer Montgomery Scott, but also marked the introduction of a solid SF device in the Trek universe: A Dyson Sphere.

A Dyson Sphere is, basically, a ball built around a star so that all of the star’s energy is used. It’s unimaginably big, easily providing the usable surface of billions of Earths. This is the first problem with Dyson Sphere: It’s simply too big to mean anything to the characters. Though not exactly a new problem (Niven’s Ringworld also suffered from “too much to see here” syndrome), it’s especially grating when the novel has to be over in two hundred pages.

Compounding this problem is the mis-match between setting and characters. There is nothing left for Beverly Crusher, for instance, to do but be awed and fascinated by the sphere. None of the characters can do anything about the setting. (Apart from Picard, that is, and his only emotion is a desire to explore.) Pellegrino and Zebrowski bring back the silicon-based Horta from previous Star Trek episodes, but can’t given them anything interesting to do.

The second problem is that Dyson Sphere is a story where the characters spend their time reacting to things instead of acting upon them. Basically, they discover a neutron star that will soon strike the Dyson Sphere, destroying it utterly. Fine. (What a coincidence!) But once that’s established, what’s left to do for the crew of the Enterprise? Explore until impact? That’s pretty much all there is. No suspense, even in the few action scenes. The deficient writing doesn’t help; the action is described in a minimal fashion that simply doesn’t evoke the required awe.

As if this wasn’t enough, the authors are curiously inconclusive about their hypotheses. Was the Dyson Sphere built by Borgs? Possibility raised, but left unexplored. Is the neutron star a weapon of war? Possibility raised but left unexplored. What the heck happened at the end? Possibility raised… Very frustrating. Not to mention the deus ex machina.

Ironically, the book improves after the novel ends; 37 of Dyson Sphere‘s 235 pages are dedicated to multi-pages author bios and two lengthy afterwords. The afterwords have nothing to do with the book, but they’re fascinating in their own right, discussing antimatter rockets and other advanced physics.

It pains me considerably to decommend Dyson Sphere: I really expected something better from these two authors. Great for them if the royalties earn them enough money to make them happy (Dyson Sphere was in the USA-Today Top-50 bestseller list!), but as for me, I’d suggest reading the afterwords at the bookstore and wait until the author’s next books. (Or pick up a copy of Pellegrino’s Dust, a much better work at roughly the same price…)

The Killing Star, Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski

Avonova, 1995, 340 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-77026-1

Science-Fiction writer Jerry Pournelle once told Charles Pellegrino that he “must have fascinating nightmares.” With his third novel, Dust, Pellegrino almost ended the world on a note of ecological collapse. In his first effort, Flying to Valhalla, he spent some time discussing the planet-cleansing effect of relativistic bombs. The Killing Star bridges these two novels by destroying the human race with relativistic bombs.

To be fair, it must be said that The Killing Star is a sequel to Flying to Valhalla, though no previous knowledge of the first book is required. It takes up the story where the first novel left off, with one extra-terrestrial anxious to inflict maximum damage to human civilization. Enter relativistic bombs.

The concept is incredibly simple: Take something -anything- and accelerate it to near-lightspeed velocities. Arrange the trajectory so that your target is struck by the near-c projectile. The impact will produce an energy roughly comparable to pure mass/energy conversion (the closer to c, the closer the equivalent). For best results, send a projectile that spreads over a wide area at the very last moment. Total destruction quasi-assured. Best of all, aggressively speaking, is that by the nature of the weapons, you can’t see it coming until it’s far too late.

Now, obviously, no nation on Earth has the means and willingness to build relativistic bombs, and -more practically- to send them away at near-c velocities. This is where implications become fascinating: only a much more advanced civilization would be able to do such a thing. Though we can speak for ourselves as incompetent, what if other extraterrestrial races out there have this capacity?

Furthermore, what if they’re convinced that every race wants to do it to them? Wouldn’t they strike preemptively? Is that why the SETI project hasn’t intercepted any signals from other civilizations? Are we stupid enough to advertise ourselves to overly paranoid races? Are relativistic bombs heading our way as we speak? Pellegrino and James Powell make a convincing analogy about the galaxy being like Central Park at night. Sure, chances are that you’ll be able to walk through it unharmed, but as you crazy enough to shout “Hello! I’m friendly! Talk to me!” while doing it?

This review is halfway over, and still hasn’t talked about the novel itself. That should tell you something both about the novel and the strength of the ideas contained within.

Thirty pages in The Killing Star, humanity has been destroyed at the exception of a few isolated outposts under the sea, near the Sun, on comets or inside asteroids. The remainder of the novel is dedicated to the relentless hunter/killer game between alien predator and human prey.

To be fair, the characterization in The Killing Star is better than the two other Pellegrino novels… probably an artifact of the collaboration with Zebrowski. It’s still not good enough to give life to the characters, but it’s better. (Admittedly, it’s always difficult to be convincing when trying to characterize the clones of religious prophets.)

But purist of the hard-SF ethos will argue that characterization and complexity of plotting must take second seat to ideas and fulfillment of premises. In this regard, The Killing Star fares much better, bringing forth some intriguing ideas and presenting a convincing account of the ultimate alien invasion.

But beyond that, The Killing Star is simply a lot of fun to read. Some of the sequences are breathtaking by their audacity. There are rich ironies in almost every chapter. It’s a grim but fair novel that rigidly adheres to science. Devotees of Clarke will find here what they want to read, with a harder edge and more suspense.

But long after the details of the plot will be forgotten, it’s the central idea of aliens-as-conquerors -suitably modernized- that will endure. Whether this shows hysterical paranoia or healthy foresight will have to be decided by the reader’s prejudice, but you just have to thank Pellegrino and Zebrowski to present us with such rich material for speculation.

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.)

Flying to Valhalla, Charles Pellegrino

Avonova, 1993, 337 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-71881-2

Charles Pellegrino has lived an interesting life. The full-page author blurb informs us that he’s been involved with astronomy, palaeontology, archaeology, the Titanic, the Valkyrie antimatter rocket, the concept of cloning dinosaurs from mosquitoes stuck in amber, composite materials, high-speed global maglevs and a few nuclear devices. Yikes.

With Flying to Valhalla, he now turns his formidable imagination to hard Science-Fiction, complete with a forty-page scientific addendum.

(It’s at this point that the liberal-arts crowd roll their eyes and quietly go away. I’ll be talking to those who will stay.)

Yessir, Flying to Valhalla is pure, undiluted, ultra-hard Science Fiction. No substitutes, no wishy-washy fuzzy concept straight out of media SF, no fancy prose. No fancy characters, and no gripping plot either, but we’ll get to that.

In the same vein than Robert L. Forward and John Cramer, Pellegrino is a working scientist with bursting ideas who finds in SF an ideal medium of expression. So who cares if his characters are cardboard and the plot’s free of any suspense? Pellegrino is constructing the basis of tomorrow’s SF: lesser authors will mine this book for years to come.

What’s in Flying to Valhalla? A lot of stuff.

The Chronology begins with “First Contact: 33,552,442 B.C.” and ends with “Effective end of Earth: A.D. 2076”. The book continues with Pellegrino, Powel and Asimov’s Three Laws of Alien Behaviour:

  1. Their survival will be more important that our survival,
  2. Wimps don’t become top dog and
  3. They will assume that the first two laws apply to us.

No Star Trek goody-humanist doctrine, here. You already want to read the novel? Good, because this stuff is still all in the introduction.

Before the novel’s over, you’ll read about antimatter rockets, space disasters, alien civilizations, theories of cosmogony, near-c insanity (or lucidity), relativistic bombs, galactic predators, electronic civilizations, sun-driven antimatter factories, lunar colonization and so much more!

It’s redundant to say that Flying to Valhalla is a novel of ideas. It’s also redundant to say that hard-SF fans will devour it with glee while everyone else will look on in incomprehension. So let’s do the only decent thing and point out that if you’re looking for good hard-SF, Flying to Valhalla, and Pellegrino, are good buys.

(The most fascinating thing about Flying to Valhalla is the concept of relativistic bombs. Accelerate relatively small objects to near-lightspeed velocities and let them smash in something -say, a planet- you want destroyed. There is almost no warning due to the near-c speed, and the impact is such that destruction is total. There is no real theoretical obstacle to this: just do the math. Now imagine that other civilisations in the galaxy that have the power required to send these relativistic bombs.

This is where hard-SF shines: It anticipates a problem that has very real foundations years -possibly *centuries*- before everyone else. Flying to Valhalla also instill a deliciously real sense of paranoia: What if our TV signals are, at this very moment, reaching a civilization that doesn’t want any competitor…?

Sweet dreams.)