As scientific progress has hurtled through the past century, the question of possible vs. right has been increasingly demanding quandary. In the field of medicine, in particular, practitioners and researchers are confronted daily with the choice between what can be done and what should be done. The specter of possibility threatens the sleep of every medical doctor. Salvation, torture, healing, abomination: the paradoxes we have created are very present and very real. Biologists with a literary bent have explored this theme for several decades now. Medical doctor Michael Crichton is best known for his thrillers that hinge upon the abuse of scientific manipulation. And now, with Altar of Eden veterinarian James Rollins has entered the fray.
Though he has produced a copious body of work, Altar of Eden is Rollins’ first novel that employs his knowledge and experience as a veterinarian. Having been confronted with the same question many times myself, I appreciate Rollins’ answer to the question that sparked the writing of Altar of Eden. The answer to “why haven’t you ever written about a vet, something like James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small” was “because not enough people die in those Herriot novels.” His serious answer is the one to which I can relate: “…I was working fourteen to sixteen hours a day as a vet, and I didn’t want to go home at night and write about one.” So true. Yet, I had been curious about Rollins’ work for a while now, and when I learned that he had written a new book that tied veterinary science into a thriller, I leaped at the chance to review it.
With the creation of his Altar of Eden protagonist, Rollins is true to the demographics of the veterinary profession. The era of James Herriot is over. Currently, nearly 90% of all veterinary school graduates in the United States are women. Dr. Lorna Polk is an engaging heroine. Staff veterinarian at ACRES — the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species, a real facility affiliated with the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans – Dr. Polk displays all of the requisite traits of a modern action heroine: intelligence, vivacity, courage, stubbornness, inventiveness, and (of course) sexiness. In a nod to humanity, Polk also possesses the secret of a flawed youth.
Altar of Eden draws heavily from the stock cast of thriller characters: darkly intense and moderately maverick hero, aforementioned plucky heroine, damaged and ruthless villain, misguidedly obsessed mastermind/financier, and quirky and/or exposition oriented secondary characters. While Rollins’ protagonists are likeable and his villains appropriately despicable and/or tortured, the novel is decidedly propelled by plot rather than character.
The novel is framed by scenes set in the post-invasion Baghdad zoo. The violent prologue sets the stage with the introduction of an unspeakable creature.
Makeen knew what he had seen.
The beast known as Shaitan in the Koran – he who was born of God’s fire and cursed for not bowing down to Adam.
Makeen knew the truth.
At long last, the devil had come to Baghdad.
Rollins’ short-paragraphed, rapid-fire prose sets the pace for a rocketing novel. Lorna barely has time to drive to her laboratory to check on the status of her cryogenic tanks in the wake of a hurricane before she is collected by a government helicopter from the Department of Homeland Security’s Border Patrol to investigate a bizarre animal smuggling case – the adjective applying to both the case and the animals.
The agent in charge of the case is Jack Menard. We discover almost immediately that a secret from the past binds Jack and Lorna. Both protagonists are native to New Orleans, but from very different backgrounds. Lorna and her brother are the last descendants of a line of wealthy, educated plantation owners. Jack was raised in a large Cajun family in the bayou. The tragedy that they shared in the past has shaped the separate careers of each.
“Jack turned and shone his flashlight into the nearest cage.
She stared inside – and knew she was wrong about everything.”
The smuggling operation is no routinely illicit transport of exotic animals across a porous border. The animals discovered in the fishing trawler display a mutual genetic trait that distinguishes them from other members of their species.
“It looks like a severe form of atavism,” Lorna said.
“And that would be what in English?”
She offered him a small apologetic smile. “Ataism is where a genetic trait, lost for generations, reappears in an individual.”
“A genetic throwback?”
“Exactly. In this case, a throwback to a time before snakes lost their limbs.”
“That’s a mighty long throw, isn’t it?”
She shrugged and moved on. “Most atavism is caused by the accidental recombination of genes. But I don’t think it was accidental here, not with these many cases.”
“So you’re saying someone bred them this way on purpose. Is that even possible?”
“I can’t rule it out. Genetic science has come a long way and continues to push boundaries…”
Here we encounter the question of can vs. should. Though stretched to its fictional limits, Rollins’ science, and speculation regarding the possibilities of genetic technology, is sound. However, the pacing does fall victim to the hazard of the well-researched novel; it lags during expository scenes. Unfortunately for Rollins, the biotechnology involved is so complex, that there is almost no way to avoid slowing the momentum of plot with detail. He gets through these passages as quickly as possible, and as the action builds speed, the drag forces of exposition are overcome.
One of the animals that has escaped from the hurricane-wrecked trawler is a feline of epic proportions. Based on the physiology of the cub left behind, Lorna deduces that not only is this cat a member of the genus Panthera, but likely displays traits of atavism dating back to the saber-toothed tiger.
Through the suspenseful search for the cat and the discovery of a mysterious extra chromosomal pair common to all of the confiscated animals, Rollins leads the readers to a sinister plot to create genetically enhanced and mentally linked creatures that can be used as bioweapons.
Rollins’ strengths as writer lie in his pacing, plot, and setting. His descriptions of the Louisiana bayous are lush and richly detailed. One gets a sense of the dark and twisting waterways and vegetation that have shaped the complex history and culture of the region. The sense of things hidden, twisted, and secret is echoed in the scenery.
Rollins does rely on many of the stock elements of the thriller. The sinister island laboratory and its wealthy, misguided, and avuncular backer are strongly reminiscent of Jurassic Park. The arrogant, misogynistic redneck who is also linked to Lorna’s past gets his due, and the shadowy corporation’s head of security is predictably cold and ruthless.
However, despite some clichés of prose and predictability of plot, Altar of Edenremains a thrilling, fun, and informative read and a provocative exploration of the possibilities and hazards of human intellect.