Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Index

DUST

A novel by Charles Pellegrino (1998, Avon Books)

As nature starts dying around humanity, desperate people start wars, mobs and a search for a cure.

 

 

1+ stars+

Read January 10th to 20th, 2003  
    This book started out with a really neat premise, but I became bored before the halfway mark -not a good sign. It got better when the end of the world was approaching, and became really contrived near the end, so that I started disliking it at that point.

This author's writing style left a lot to be desired, at least from a dramatic point of view. He wrote well, but used way too much sensationalism. I hate it, for example, when any author tries to horrify us by saying "by the time he crossed the bridge, it was too late for the rest of the island", or even worse, "by New Year's, he would be dead." The author seems to be reaching for headlines, when I wish he would simply stick to the story.

Along the same lines, the author diverges from the actual story for pages at a time, telling us of his pet theories, and about actual research that has been done. All of it is peripheral to the story, and while interesting, really halts the events that are happening. The worst offender was the manual for the nuclear silo. Why did we have to see all those pages in capital letters? There must have been a better way to show us Scanner's official procedures.

The main premise of the book is that nature is doing strange, deadly things. Outbreaks of mites (yes, ordinary mites) killing people, bees and all other insects dying off, fungus outbreaks because of that, mad-cow disease running rampant, with insect-eating bats also dying out and vampire bats switching to humans as food. Essentially, as the theory goes, if we take away all the insects, what kind of domino effect will be produced? Parts of this book show us one scenario. I just wish the author would have stuck with that.

Instead, we get a bunch of characters who are each pulled from one of several vats of standard traits. All of the scientists sound the same- they are all brilliant, can all complete each others' thoughts, even when they start out bitter with each other. By the end, all but two have died!

I can understand trying to avoid the typical cliché of having all of the main characters survive to the end of the book. However, having every single one except for two of them die is a little too much in the other direction. I would have loved to hear from the experts on what was happening for longer.

That's where the problem with this book manifests itself. Once the scientists agree on two or three plausible theories and decide to do something about it, we can start killing them off, because nothing interesting happens in their area after that. Citing the 33 million year extinction cycle form the past, they theorize that preceding every rain of comets which wiped out species such as dinosaurs, cames a mass insect die-off, which made those creatures so weak that they couldn't survive the catastrophe that came later.

They call this a genetic time-bomb, and although we never find out if they are right, it is consistent within the book, as the last chapter tells us that a bombardment is on its way. I loved the way the scientists began spewing, accepting, modifying and rejecting all of the theories that they came up with. Unfortunately, the same chapter, the same scene as that theorizing, nearly brought the book to a standstill, because it was so technical, and was real brainstorming.

Many of the scientists are killed when the public takes revenge on a perceived botched experiment. The American catalyst for this outrage is sparked from Jerry Sigmund, who encompasses charisma and charm for his own benefit. He also has a personal grudge against Richard Sinclair, the chief scientist. Although we spend some time with him, and after he is arrested, his overly impressionable guard Amy, I think the less said about them, the better. He could have at least been written well, but it was not to be.

One prominent scientist is killed taking a walk in a spacesuit among the "motes". While getting claustrophobic in a spacesuit is realistic, I felt that the scene was rushed, and was there simply to kill the character. It was a real waste. Why create experts, especially ones who realize what is going on and then kill them so early? It delays the resolution, of course, and forces people who are not as intuitive or smart to come to the fore, but the scene made it feel like a waste.

Another scientist and his wife are killed by the vampire bats that they are studying. The author did not charm me with his comparison of Bill and Janet's escapade to the bat nest with a bad Hollywood movie. It really did seem like one, and his acknowledging it didn't excuse it. It was stupid, and they knew it. That again doesn't excuse it. They could have easily watched the bats exit the church from inside their car, even to the swarm flying out. They would have found their answers and stayed alive. Similarly, the scene inside the lighthouse felt completely false. Why did the bats even stop there? Two people inside a sealed enclosure would be a sizable obstacle, which animals would have avoided, moving onto easier targets. Perhaps have a few stay, attracted by the lights, but not the swarm. The author has the bats bordering on intelligent, attempting to crack the glass like that.

Events around the world -or at least outside of the labs at Brookhaven- were a little more interesting, though they didn't get the time that would have saved the book. It is ironic that the book gets so much more interesting when the world is about to end. I was so bored by the middle of the book. The author went into so many technical rants that it was overwhelming. He is apparently trying to make all of this science into a popular culture, parsing theories together, but he brought back the sensationalist nature of his writing, which had been missing since the beginning.

The destruction of the aircraft carrier, while a little contrived, was well done, and quite exciting. India and Pakistan had enough of a fight between themselves, that I find it highly unlikely that they would sabotage such a large fleet like they did, with a nuclear mine, of all things. It's a pity that all of the characters had to die, because I think their story would have been more interesting if they had survived the horrors. The chapter serves to show how desperate the world can get, with desperation driving countries to annex their neighbors, no matter the threat of retaliation, knowing that anarchy is ruling the world at the moment, and that the United Nations could do nothing about it, anyway.

One of my favorite chapters involved the very human dialog between Bishop the scientist, and the Rabbi, more soon-to-be-killed characters. It was truly a calm moment, and telling that no matter where they went, they would have been killed, if not in Long Island by Jerry then in Washington by the nuclear bomb. Along the same lines, I loved the way the two girls were turned over to the lab by their father, knowing that they might survive even though his survival was unlikely (they, of course, get to grow up on the space station because of a fortuitous launch of a very special spacecraft).

The contrivances, which had really been subtle for most of the book, come to the fore near the end, and almost ruined the book completely for me. I really wonder if it was necessary to have a psycho in a nuclear silo. I was really hoping that he wouldn't trigger a nuclear war because of his delusions, but it went far worse than that. With the world at an end, no President, no chain of command, he decides to launch his missiles at Long Island. I seemed to be missing a part of the puzzle, though. What target would the missiles choose if they no longer had commands in  "spoilsport" mode? Choose one at random? That doesn't make sense.

I thought the author was going to wipe out humanity. Bad enough that he had nearly every single character die. But it seems that he had to try really hard to do it. To destroy the best hope for humanity's survival, we needed Jerry to strike at the lab just before a blizzard hit, just before dozens of nuclear weapons land on the site. I'm just happy to see the end of Jerry.

Their blimp-like craft starts falling apart, if the above wasn't enough, killing the rest of the scientists and destroying their data. Two survive, along with Richard's daughter, Tam. That was the only part of the end of the book that I felt was reasonable, as the fungus took it apart from the inside.

I think the story would have been much more interesting if Jerry had found the lab to be silent and abandoned, and perhaps life started to spread from his regime, indicating that driving out the scientists was the will of God, returning the insects to that area. He could have become a warlord. And then get hammered by the bombs!

At the very least, I think the scientists should have had an opposite number to Jerry. It's unlikely that people would have listened for long, but at least the plan could have been outlined, where the research was going. All Jerry could have done was called them liars. I also thought that Bishop could have outlined what Bookhaven was doing, and turned more of Amy's doubts aside, perhaps having Jerry watch his back, and create a power struggle. I was just as happy when Amy was killed as I was when she finally shot Jerry, though for a police officer, she was a bad shot.

The end of the book seems to try and give us hope and fear at the same time. Tam's butterflies twenty years later, people still living in New York (though the World Trade Center surviving a series of nuclear explosions is an eerie thought), spreading insects over the world seems to indicate that the world might be coming back alive, though with a totally different distribution of power. However, we also learn that the comets are about to come crashing down.

Speaking of space, what was the purpose of the Darwin II spacecraft at Saturn? I thought it might provide a nice counterpoint to find life elsewhere while destroying it on Earth, or introducing some different DNA, but it just fizzled into nothing, really.

The fact that the author doesn't offer a true resolution to the question of where the insects went, or even if the theory was correct, doesn't bother me; that's how science works, and it's normally only after hundreds of years of study that we figure out if we were right or wrong. If it is correct, though, I want to know what happens when insects are removed from life on the space station -if the plants are hand-pollinated, then there were never any insects to begin with. If little insects are still in human bodies, shouldn't they disappear, as well, and we would have an outbreak on the station? Either way, we should see some kind of effect.

This book could have been better dealing with the effects of rebuilding the world, I think. I would even consider reading a sequel with Tam as the main character, if there was one forthcoming. It is ironic that countries with fewer freedoms, like where Tam now calls home, probably came out of the mess easier than the US, since psychos like Jerry would not have been allowed to incite the public to mob. Still, I would hope that a sequel has more character development, and even better plot development. There were so many characters who were in this book simply to show different ways of dying. I wanted more. The plot was also very shallow, once introduced, and didn't get much further than it had in the first few chapters. Sure, cloning insects from millions of years ago was successfully attempted, but it had been brought up fairly early in the crisis, so that all we had left was to get it done. The fact that there is no real resolution to the book is strange in that way, since we don't even know if Tam is going into a trap or to find new friends.

Still, there were enough neat concepts and nice character moments to make much of the book enjoyable. There was a lot of data about life, biology, scientific studies, all of which were only marginally related to the plot, but much of it held my attention, simply by the fact that it was information on things I was totally unaware of. If we could have stuck with the interesting characters and concepts, made them deeper instead of perusing them all, I would have been more impressed. In this case, I had more complaints than good comments.

 
   

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