Monday, April 28, 2008

Dust - a review

Dust by Charles Pellegrino

Dust is about ecological disaster. And ah, what a disaster! Such a read-the-fine-print, grimly ironic, hoist by your own petard kind of disaster that one is compelled to find delicious how such a longed-for consummation went so wrong. Dust, you see, hypothesizes that all the insects in the world... disappear.

That's the read-the-fine-print catch. While you're thinking: "Hey! No beestings!" You're not thinking about all the damage this would do. All the soil that wouldn't be replenished by ants... all the produce that wouldn't be pollinated... all the fungi that wouldn't be kept at bay... how long dead animals would stay around, breeding disease... all the creatures whose food source has disappeared.

I've always loved end of the world stories. Dante was intimate with the peculiar pleasure of hanging his opponents in effigy. We all wish we could rain fire and torment down on the excesses of the modern world. We choose different excesses. For instance, I would gladly turn the city where Muskrat Love was recorded into a pile of radioactive slag. In the sandwich board oeuvre everyone gets hung! And then, there are few fantasies more perversely fulfilling than imagining how you would remake the world if you had to rebuild it from scratch.

I also love wide ranging science fiction, where authors swing out over the edge of reality on a gossamer thread of possibility. Charles Pellegrino is one of those curious, DaVinci style mutants who's genius infests a lot of intellectual corridors. Search the web for his name, and you will find papers on paleoarchaeology, xenobiology and rocket science. He's the guy that wrote the article about dinosaur DNA in amber that inspired the novel that Michael Crichton wrote that prefigured the movie that Spielburg built - Jurassic Park. So his amazing brain is right up to the task of grazing extinction theory and ecological theory and pulling out the facts that support a chilling end of everything.

But enough about Dust's pedigree. It's a truly scary premise, with lots of gruesome scenes. Unlike many similar novels, Dust isn't about a threat to life as we know it... it's about the abject failure of life as we know it.

The results of absentee insects include: massive species extinction before we've even realized what's happened... worldwide famine... leading to war... ending in the mutual exchange of thermonuclear devices... plague, plague and more plague... and just for gruesome fun, a crapload of mini predators that had been kept in check by insects aren't kept in check any longer. The number of people who are graphically slashed, chewed, and ripped to bits by micro-predators is truly startling.

Dust has a cast of thousands, along the model of the old Niven and Pournelle Armageddon potboilers that I love so much. This is sometimes confusing, as Pellegrino jumps from character to character in the space of a chapter, killing most of them but saving out a few for his final, showstopping set piece.

On the other hand, the busy cast makes for an exciting novel because it gives a wide angle view of the world's impending destruction, allowing you to watch Pakistan and India nuke each other from the deck of the Nimitz at the same time Vampire Bats eat a scientist alive in the Caribbean.

Mr. Pellegrino's grasp of characterization is a little shaky at times. For instance, the protagonist's nine-year-old daughter sometimes seems a little dumb for her age, even though she's supposed to be a mini-genius. And there are a few too many "NoNoNo's" uttered in the course of histrionics. One can't blame the characters for histrionics. The world is, after all, ending. One may wish, however, that distress didn't sound so very operatic... soap-operatic, that is.

This problem is very minor, however. When you get right down to it, the characters are fun people to have known on the page: multiple geniuses in the mold of the author himself and biker rocket scientists and wiccan physicists. Even a real-life friend of the author, a bat biologist, thrown in at the friend's behest and slaughtered by one small corner of this cornucopia of disaster.

The plot itself is simple, in the manner of this sub-genre. Everything falls apart, and some characters try to put things back together while others just struggle to survive. Few do. So few, that when the novel is racing towards the climactic end, you vaguely suspect that Pellegrino, in a fit of malicious glee, is going to let the world strangle on it's own bad behavior. It's a tooth gritting ride, wondering if there will be anybody left to root for at the end.

Dust is anything but dry. It's fully engaging as a thriller, as science fiction, and as a horror show.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website.

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