Cracks in that simplistic philosophical dichotomy appeared in the late 40s with the opening of the Atomic Age and the Cold War. Suddenly, science itself appeared malevolent, and scientists no longer required mental instabilities or megalomania to create problems for humanity – all they needed was misguided intent in order to "meddle with things Man was not meant to know." Over the course of the past fifty years, this separation between scientist and science has widened into a yawning chasm of damaged innocence and disillusionment with scientific research unfortunately stimulated by the Challenger and Columbia disasters of 1986 and 2003, respectively. Today we find an anti-science faction in near-complete control of the American mindset, actively promoting a public and political retreat from scientific expansion, whether it be space exploration, nanotechnology or stem cell/bio-engineering research. Science fiction’s early projection of an horizon-brightening, wonder-filled future appears unbelievably distant if not outright defunct.
|Science fiction fans of all ages have certainly encountered the mad scientist motif at some point in either literature or filmed media, or both. Edgar Rice Burroughs created such a character for his sixth Barsoom novel, The Mastermind of Mars (1927). Bela Lugosi regularly attempted to exchange the brains and/or blood of humans and apes in such lurid films as Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Ape Man (1943), and Return of the Ape Man (1944).
Pulp magazines of the 20s, 30s and 40s, ranging from Argosy to Weird Tales to Planet Stories were filled with tales of super-scientific menace heroically averted only through the capture or death of an insane, megalomaniacal scientist. More often than not, the villains, with their flamboyant costumes, cackling speeches, and outlandish inventions, overshadowed the stodgy, plodding protagonist. Mad scientists were interesting, even though readers and viewers internalized and accepted that Good always triumphed over Evil.
|Books by Douglas Preston
and Lincoln Child
Mount Dragon (1997)
The Ice Limit (2000)
Ice Ship (2002)
The Cabinet of Curiosities (2003)
Still Life With Crows (2004)
Dance of Death (2005)
Perpetrators of this anti-science attitude can be found everywhere from the pages of your morning newspaper to widely-publicized literary best-sellers. One of the most egregious of these latter writers is Michael Crichton, who began his career with legitimate, science-based thrillers — (The Andromeda Strain (1969), Congo (1980) – but recently switched to producing tremendously lucrative and subversively entertaining novels that describe various ways and means in which science can go wrong. Stories employing this technique are sometimes called "cautionary tales" – Jurassic Park and The Lost World (1990, 1995), Prey (2002) – but Crichton has tipped over the edge into outright political bias and polemic with State of Fear (2005), an unbelievably bad book that couples strident anti-science fear-mongering with stick-figure characters and only a marginal attempt at presenting a coherent plot to encapsulate his message.
Don’t take my word for it! Go to his website, [www.crichton-official.com] and read his own comments about Prey: "But it is true that the younger generation will be faced with the problems of self-reproducing technologies in a way we haven’t had to deal with yet;" or his actual 2005 testimony given before a US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. While it’s true that Crichton is only one voice among millions, the popularity of his books provide a literary bully pulpit that further erodes the sense of wonder – and yes, the simplistic morality that science can be used for Good as well as Evil – once so evident in science fiction and science-based thrillers.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to Crichton’s jaundiced view. You can call them throwbacks, but the scientific thrillers penned by Douglas Preston represent a polar opposite view of science and its relation to humanity.
Where Crichton’s science is dark, menacing and dangerous, Preston’s vision of the field is expansive, hopeful, and awe-inspiring, ready and waiting for the appropriate people to discover its wonders. Preston’s credentials are impressive – he spent eight years with the American Museum of Natural History as editor of "The Curator", and author of Dinosaurs in the Attic (1985), a history of the museum.
After moving to New Mexico, he wrote Cities of Gold (1992), a non-fiction examination of Coronado’s search for the Lost City of Cibola, and Talking to the Ground (1995), chronicling a 400-mile trip through the Navajo nation, retracing the mythical trail of Navajo deity Naayee Neizghani, Slayer of the Alien Gods. Beginning in 1995, Preston formed a literary alliance with writer-editor Lincoln Child to produce Relic, the first of ten collaborative thrillers to combine scientific anomalies, Fortean legends, and historical mysteries.
While this reviewer singles out The Ice Limit (2000) as the best production to date, all of the Preston-Child canon is worth reading.
Tyrannosaur Canyon is Preston’s third stand-alone novel, a direct sequel to last year’s The Codex, and represents a quantum leap forward from that earlier story of a treasure hunt for an ancient Mayan wonder drug through South American jungles. Although a third-share of his late father’s antiquities collection has made protagonist Tom Broadbent filthy rich, he’s returned to the simple life of a New Mexican veterinarian practice with new wife, Sally Colorado. Both love the solitude and grandeur of western canyonlands and spend considerable time on horseback exploring the rugged territory. Tom is traveling solo when he happens across the murder of what seems to be a prospector.
The dying man presses a notebook into Tom’s hand, and forces him to promise that he’ll locate the man’s daughter and give her access to "…the treasure…" Tom agrees, and his promise to the dying man puts him right in the cross-hairs of a particularly vicious killer who’s also looking for the notebook.
The contents of the notebook are a puzzle, and Tom’s search for the daughter brings him into contact with a former CIA cryptologist-turned-Benedictine monk named Wyman Ford. Without going into too much plot detail, Tom, Sally, and Wyman join forces to figure out the source of the treasure, locate the elusive daughter, and fend off a very aggressive killer and the person who’s funding him.
Readers will enjoy a storyline that involves illegal fossil hunters and distributors, the Chicxulub Event, both sides of the K-T Boundary, missing moon rocks, a nasty government cover-up, and a kicker of an ending that is philosophically satisfying and upbeat. Scientific information is seamlessly and objectively woven throughout, forming the rationale for present and future human actions, some cynical, some altruistic. The result is a science-based thriller in which science is a Good Thing, a novel that finds exploration and advancement of human knowledge to be thrilling and awe-inspiring rather than fearsome and devastating.