04 October, 2005

If you're a Dan Brown fan...

...and haven't read Deception Point, LOOK AWAY NOW!

I got this book for my birthday. I can't claim to be the greatest fan of Dan Brown; I read The Da Vinci Code to see what all the fuss was about, but had no real inclination to sample more of his ouvre. However, I've spent the past few evenings skimming through it, and I can't say that my opinion of his authorship has been heightened by the experience. I can appreciate that he's very clever at weaving together a narrative which hits the buttons for the X-Files generation, but I find his writing style a little annoying. The fact that most of the characters are a little underdeveloped (or sketchy and cliched if you're feeling bitchy) and prone to exposition-speak ("you mean that this document proves that the conspiracy reaches all the way to the White House?") is almost a given in this genre; but in addition Mr. Brown feels the need to give the make and model, and often the development history, of any piece of equipment that is mentioned, and this is truly irritating.

But this is not why I write. Some of the controversy around The Da Vinci Code (and the cause of the Catholic Church's righteous indignation) hinged around its claims to authenticity - that is was more than an imaginative thriller, but had a certain basis in fact. As an author, in fact, Dan Brown seems to take great pains to provide the appearance of authenticity (which is probably the reason for the aforementioned overdescription of equipment). Not that this appearance neccesarily means anything, of course, if some of the scholarly reaction to The Da Vinci Code is anything to go by.

In Deception Point it is my turf that is being trodden upon (in a broad sense anyway), because the focus of the story is a meteorite, discovered in the Artic by NASA, which contains fossils. The main characters of this story are non-NASA people who have been called in to verify this apparent discovery of alien life. Cue smug palaeontologist, talking about one of these supposed alien fossils:

"The most impressive characteristic of this organism is that it fits perfectly into our Darwinian system of taxonomy and classification."

a fact which is apparently support for 'panspermia', the theory that earth was seeded with life from space.

Erm... No.

To be fair, Mr. Brown describes the concept of panspermia rightly enough, but makes a complete dog's breakfast of the implications if it were true. In such a case, then we might expect life on other planets to have a similar underlying biochemistry. And possibly insect-like life could have developed, 'like' being the key word because the resemblance would be, at best, superficial. Such creatures might share generic features with Earth insects, like segmented bodies, multiple appendages, or a hard carapace acting as attachment point for muscles, but looking closer you would find that they were built completely differently (a bit like the way bird and bat wings look similar but have entirely different underlying structure). This is because even if it was derived from the same basic source, the evolutionary history of life on another planet would be dependent on a complex interplay between mutation and environment which would never exactly duplicate what has occurred on Earth. Therefore, the discovery of organisms that fit into Earth taxonomy in a "meteorite" would scream "fake!" to any competent biologist or geologist, which as it turns out, it is (a fact which is revealed on the back cover of my copy, so I feel few qualms about revealing here), although our intrepid top scientists need to go through a lot of technobabble before they are convinced of this.

Should I care? The fact that I get so worked up about scientific inaccuracies in works of fiction causes certain friends of mine take me to task for being a bit anorak-esque. But so often, you find scientific concepts being mangled beyond all recognition when it would work just as well if they got it right. I find that annoying, and it can hardly help combat the scientific cluelessness of the general public. This sloppiness is especially unforgivable when the authors make claims about the painstaking research behind their novels. Not in the right areas, clearly. Admittedly, the plot of Deception Point would have to be retooled a bit to make it work and be scientifically accurate, but it could be done. It might even make it a bit more readable.