Do you remember the 1997 Simpson’s episode entitled “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show?” It’s the one in which Homer voices a new character, Poochie the Dog, on The Itchy and Scratchy Show. Poochie is, of course a disaster of subjecting the creative process to focus groups. He’s this aggregation of hipness, donning baggy pants, sunglasses, and a backwards baseball cap. He has an attitude, a social conscious and rides a skateboard…”in the extreme”.
Poochie comes to mind when I think about the disaster of a novel that I just finished. Mount Dragon (please note that thislink’s synopsis gets a couple of minor points wrong) is meant by authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childs as a cautionary tale of the dangers of genetic engineering. The message and the basic plot would be fine if the various sub-plots didn’t look like the brainchild of a bunch of mid-1990’s focus groups.
The story is set primarily at Mount Dragon, a remote research facility in New Mexico run by GeneDyne, a biotech company run by one Brent Scopes, and eccentric billionaire genius. Our story’s hero, Guy Carson, a researcher who is at heart a New Mexico cowboy descended from Kit Carson, is brought in to finish a project to eradicate influenza. He immediately runs into friction with his beautiful lab assistant, Suzanna Cabeza de Vaca (if the sound system at your next waltz lesson is broken, just repeat that name over and over, and you’ll be fine). She’s descended from Spaniards who settled in New Mexico in the 1500’s. She is constantly accusing him of having unresolved issues related to the fact that he’s descended from Kit Carson’s Ute wife. (I have no idea if this is true about the real Kit Carson.) The problem is that Guy doesn’t really display any issues on the matter except for the fact that being accused of repressing his heritage irritates him. But hey, the sniping between the two serves, predictably, to create sexual tension. (Yes, it gets…um…resolved late in the story, also very predictably.)
Meanwhile, Scopes, based in Boston, is in conflict with his former colleague and former best friend, Charles Levine who has severe reservations about genetic engineering. Of course, Levine is Jewish and has family that suffered at the hands of Mengele during the holocaust, so his family history makes him understandably wary of what Scopes is up to. He’s aided by Mime, an expert hacker and thalidomide baby, who Levine employs to penetrate Scopes’ state of the art, hyper secure computer network.
Moving back to New Mexico, events transpire to make Carson and Cabeza de Vaca suspect that something is wrong. It turns out that GeneDyne has inadvertantly created a superbug capable of wiping out humanity. More importantly, however, the problem that created the superbug also exists in the company’s blood substitute which will be released in a few days and will cause homicidal and suicidal insanities in its victims. And our heroes are the only two residents of Mount Dragon that were not used as beta testers. They blow the place up and escape into the desert, while Levine, who has learned what’s going on and sets off to stop Scopes.
(Now, remember how I talked about an attempt to touch 1996 sensibilities? If this were written today, I know that the escape from Mount Dragon whould have had degenerated into badly done zombie fiction.)
Now, so far, so good. The book is readable and it makes sense for the first two acts. In the third act, the story goes off the rails. Levine infiltrates GeneDyne’s headquarters since Scopes cuts the building off from all electronic communications. Carson and Cabeza de Vaca head off into the desert with no where near enough water to try and warn the world about the perils of the blood substitute pursued by Nye, Mount Dragon’s security chief who is seeking some Spanish treasure rumored to be in the area. His paranoia fuels his hatred of our heroes because he thinks they’re after his treasure. Seriously.
Still, I can deal with the pursuit across the desert. The problem is really with Levine’s infiltration into Scopes’ computer network. Please keep in mind, up until now, we have no idea that this is anything but a seriously fortified computer network. That all changes when Levine discovers a whole tron-esque virtual world populated by subroutines representing people. Huh? When did this story become one involving cyperpunk? It’s not inconsistent with the earlier parts of the story, but it introduces this whole theme of immortality in a virtual computer world that is not really tied to the rest of the story. The story can be fully resolved without a digital representation of Scopes’ childhood home, and in fact it would have if the story had not been published in 1996 when you could not turn around without encountering something “virtual”.
Anyway, I won’t give away any more in case you want to read it and see how it all plays out for yourself. As for me, I’m glad I checked it out from the library.
Interestingly, I will be trying out another Preston work in the future, if for no other reason than to see if he’s improved as a writer.