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Dust
Charles Pellegrino
Avon Books, 387 pages

Dust
Charles Pellegrino
Charles Pellegrino might best be described as a scientist-adventurer-writer. His theories served as the scientific basis for the novel and film Jurassic Park. He is the author of at least 11 books including Return to Sodom and Gomorrah, Unearthing Atlantis, and Her Name, Titanic. Charles Pellegrino co-designed the Valkyrie antimatter rocket, is a brainstorming team member on self replicating robot technology achieved by artificial intelligence, and co-discovered an entirely new life form found hanging from every inch of the Titanic's hull.

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A review by Alexander von Thorn

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One could draw parallels between this story and The Stand, Mad Max, Jurassic Park, or those asteroid-impact movies. But really, it's not nearly so upbeat. The worst-case scenarios in any of those books is far more upbeat than the best possible outcome in Charles Pellegrino's Dust. This is one of the scariest things I've ever read. I found myself missing bus stops as civilizations ended and humanity lost its place at the top of the food chain. I walked through an ethnic market in Toronto listening not to the blare of music from stores or the gabble of a score of languages, but to the chirping of birds in high branches. I felt relieved that I lived in a world where the birds had not died.

The premise of Dust is chillingly plausible. The story opens with a prologue set almost 66 million years ago, with a pre-sentient saurian facing a disaster far worse than a mere asteroid. Paleontological evidence suggests that every 33 million years (give or take a couple of hundred thousand), a pattern of genetic timers cause some key species of insects, like aphids and fungus gnats, to die off in a mass extinction. Within months, the ants die. Then bees, termites, grasshoppers; after that, birds, most mammals, cultivated plant species, and well, then things start to become unpleasant very quickly. The last time this happened was about 33 million years ago, at the end of the Eocene Age. From this book I learned about prey-switching, prions, disease vector-switching, and other catalysts of ecological change.

This book describes a lot of bizarre and nasty ways to die. Micro-arachnid mites, normally harmless bits of nothing that quietly inhabit every bed and laundry hamper, mutate into a horrible black swarm that eats everything in a Long Island suburb. Caribbean vampire bats, deprived of their usual prey, switch to a hardier species, which happens to be bipedal. Dinoflaggelate "red tides" poison the food chain of seaside environments. Crop-eating fungal blooms wipe out agriculture in southern Asia and the American plains. Small communities go "radio silent", and then small countries. And there are purely human threats, such as war, chaos, mob rule. The book makes an interesting statement about right-wing broadcast demagogues who talk about "Christian values" for the most cynical and opportunistic reasons. And, of course, some sparks of nuclear warfare flare up, not really that important in the grand scheme, but they provide some dramatic tension for the plot at a couple of points. Governments race to seize any scrap of land they think might be spared the apocalypse, but that becomes irrelevant as organized societies collapse and urban populations die off.

Charles Pellegrino indulges himself at several points, but this is easy to forgive. The primary character is a paleo-biologist, and the heroes are scientists struggling against time and the purveyors of ignorance and fear to find the answers that will save humanity. There are pages and pages of exposition, occasionally leavened by character interaction, but more often the reader is dragged along by ghastly potentialities described quite matter-of-factly. Usually, the worst outcome becomes real a couple of chapters later. The story is not based on a string of unlikely coincidences; as millions die and ecosystems collapse, the reader is hard-pressed to find reasons why this wouldn't happen. Human civilization has changed the balance just enough that this time, multi-cellular life forms might not bounce back. A "Reality Check" afterword documents the author's research, challenging the reader to find faults in his logic. Pellegrino himself is a paleontologist, rocket systems designer, and undersea explorer who came up with the notion of extracting dinosaur DNA from amber-trapped mosquitoes and who was consulted by James Cameron on the factual details of the Titanic sinking.

A good piece of science fiction makes the reader think. This story spun around my head for days, making me look at everything around me in a different light. Environmentalism seems like a really good idea after reading the book. Although this particular disaster is mostly natural, it takes little imagination to picture mass extinctions caused by pollution or other effects of human civilization. The space program also appears to be an excellent long-term bet, with Earth looking like a very shaky basket to store all humanity's eggs in. The combination of rigorous scientific logic and gripping dramatic pacing makes this an excellent candidate for a Hugo nomination next year. The theme of this book is that life is the universe's way of organizing itself to combat entropy; here, though, entropy might win. But what really makes the book work is the way it involves the reader directly; you have to think what you would do in a world where everyone is likely to die very soon. Read Dust. While you still can.

Copyright © 1998 by Alexander von Thorn

Alexander von Thorn works two jobs, at The Worldhouse (Toronto's oldest game store) and in the network control centre of UUNET Canada. In his spare time, he is active in several fan and community organizations, including the Toronto in 2003 Worldcon bid. He is also a game designer, novelist-in-training (with the Ink*Specs, the Downsview speculative fiction writing circle), feeder of one dog and two cats, and avid watcher of bad television. He rarely sleeps.


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