"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Time to read again: Charles Pellegrino and Dust (book review)


Charles Pellegrino's books really get into my brain, stir things up, and lodge there, waiting to reappear later. I love the way he thinks. I find him tremendously exciting. He's sometimes called "controversial" (the author of the Wiki article beats that drum) and some people get downright nasty about him. As his website rather puckishly proclaims,
Most books and theories receive average, or middle-of-the-road reviews. Pellegrino’s reviewers are never middle-of-the-road. The bell curve isn’t even in it. People either love him, or they hate him.
Great observation - "The bell curve isn't even in it." It would be interesting to pin down what it is about Pellegrino that divides intellectuals like that; probably if we could locate them on a bell curve describing something else, the lovers and haters would correlate to early and late adopters of change, and perhaps liberal vs conservative social bias. Obviously I'm in the former camp. I think he's just brilliant, and don't find criticisms of him particularly compelling - either on their own merits, seen in the context of his work as a whole, or in light of the fun and inspiration he gives me as a reader. And sometimes, when he is arguing a value or an ethical point (such as his insights into the nature of real leadership, or when he exposes academic scapegoating and skulduggery), he's an intellectual knight in shining armor, telling truths nobody else is willing to admit.

Pellegrino's a polymath, known for a variety of accomplishments despite being subject to chronic fatigue syndrome for years -- authoring computer games, adventuring with James Cameron in the discovery of the Titanic (and more recently as a consultant on Avatar), and writing nonfiction and science fiction in which he synthesizes compellingly over diverse fields of study. I've read quite a few of his books and always feel he's a bit of a kindred spirit. I wish he'd write a whole lot more - I don't care what about; anything he does is sure to be intriguing. In this and future posts, I'll find some of these books and reviews. First up:

Dust: A Novel (1998) - a stunning near-future eco-thriller

All too often, in the years since I first read and reviewed this near-future novel, events have parallelled what Pellegrino warns of here, and I have felt the reality of it on a deep level because this book had taught me to see them for what they were: dire environmental tipping-points in a tragic and probably irreversible downward entropic spiral. The story begins with the disappearance of tiny motes, which doesn't sound so bad to most people; next it's bats, also not a particularly popular animal; and before you know it all hell breaks loose. And by the time it's over, surely any reader will see why even the smallest organism matters to the whole, including humans.

Recently, bees began disappearing in our world and it's encouraging to me that so many people are genuinely troubled by the phenomenon; but it's been a while now, and still no solution. And how about the huge plastic soup growing in the Pacific (see Bag It), or the gigantic oil spill playing out as I write this, in the Gulf of Mexico (now called the Gulf of Oil)? Disasters don't come larger than these - or do they? How many such disturbances can the earth's life support system accommodate before it's just too many, and the unthinkable happens? We don't know. Maybe it's time to re-read Dust and be mentally prepared for what comes next. This is from my review, recommending the book to adults and older teens, in SLJ:

Stephen King fans, science fiction aficionados, and students of the environment [come to think of it, any intelligent, caring person] should enjoy [well, "enjoy" might not be quite the right word] this stunning near-future eco-thriller. The story hurtles the reader forward like a runaway train as nature's complex balancing mechanisms rapidly come undone and scientists race, using every skill their professions command, to salvage something from the ruins.

Human costs and scientific principles are explored as Pellegrino skillfully weaves his story from many strands: the demise of the dinosaurs, genetics, space stations, ancient Babylon's economic collapse, mad cow disease, and the psychology of mobs and demagogues are just some of the elements that move this plot forward. How is so much disaster bearable for the reader (even one who likes a horror story)? A healthy amount of humor, ranging from sly to sledgehammer, leavens the narrative, while at the same time, believable characters and familiar cultural icons anchor the reader amidst what would otherwise be overwhelming chaos.

Perhaps most of all, for me this book works because of the author's gift for catching his readers up in the creativity and excitement of scientific minds at work. In a satisfying Afterword, Pellegrino discusses the facts and theories he has presented in the story.

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PS 2010:  I'm sorry Dust doesn't have a big readership because if anything it's more current now than when it was first published. It made an equally strong impression on another reviewer, Alexander von Thorne, as well - I like what he says here:
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)
Click here for another review, and this one's funny! And click here for an earlier post I wrote, recommending some other environmentally-themed books.


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