If you want a novel of near-future politico-scientific speculation, ablaze with mind-stretching ideas and taut with the tension of total disaster in the making, then Stel Pavlou’s ‘Decipher’ (2001, Simon & Schuster; Pocket Books, 2002, Amazon UK) is it.
The action begins in savage weather aboard the ‘Red Osprey’, an energy giant’s exploration vessel in the Ross Sea off Antarctica, where a tough team from Rola Corp. and some queasier scientists are after oil reserves.
Yes, this kind of research is illegal and wicked. We know all about the last great wilderness, the provisions and bans of the Antarctic Treaty. The earth’s vast southern icecap is a place where you can’t shit without tanking the stuff up and taking it home for disposal. And nobody owns it. But as Pavlou points out in a brief preface starting in 1960, the Treaty
“guaranteed that even if mankind had any desire to rid itself of the Seven Deadly Sins, Greed had been assured of a place in our hearts by virtue of time. By writing it down on a piece of paper and parading it as law and belief, Greed could be resurrected at a moment’s notice.
That was the beauty of the written word.”
However, it’s not oil they strike with Rola Corp.’s depth node sunk from ‘Red Osprey’. It’s some weird rock, Carbon 60, and it’s got incomprehensible writing on it.
Roll on Dr Richard Scott, linguist extraordinaire, expert in the origins of language, bane of the Bible Belt because he explodes the very foundations of the Christian faith with his knowledge of comparative religion and mythologies. Scott is a kind of Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade rolled into one and doing his thing in 2012.
But with the United States on the verge of an energy resources war with China, the reliable old sun suddenly behaving so dangerously strangely that humanity’s own recent and considerable contribution to global warming is among the least of our worries, and more bizarre discoveries being made in places as distant as the Amazon and Egypt, Scott’s needed to take on something new.
So are Jon Hackett, nuclear physicist, Sarah Kelsey, leading geologist, engineer Ralph Matheson and a few others who who have to join an uneasy alliance of scientists, the military and Rola Corp. to find that they have about a week to save the world.
Pavlou is good. His first novel rivets the attention for nearly 800 (paperback) pages, draws richly on two of the oldest and most widespread myths known to humanity — the Flood and notions of Atlantis — and abounds with wit and ideas.
But even when I finished it, I still wasn’t sure whether my imagination had just absorbed a large chunk of encyclopaedia or a blockbuster film script to which the likes of James Cameron, Ridley Scott or even the grown-up Steven Spielberg might do justice, given a lot of money and some staggering but discreet special effects.
The man does write movies. The year ‘Decipher’ came out, so did ‘The 51st State‘, which the Liverpool University graduate both wrote and co-produced, to mixed crits. And it shows in the book, where the visual imagery is big-screen stuff, right up to its climax beneath the ice, but the characters are mostly not filled out: brilliant, funny, and sometimes devious and dangerous, but stereotypes nevertheless.
This didn’t bother me, since I was hooked. What did, however, was the number of times Pavlou puts his people in the most appalling situations and they respond in the most unlikely of ways. By chattering, relentlessly. Experience has taught me that when you’re being shot at, for example, you don’t chunter on as if you’re in some cosy scientific conference. I don’t know how I’d react if I encountered something as monstrous as a Golem, but I doubt that I’d resort to verbal pyrotechnics.
Stel does seem vaguely aware of this flaw! At one point, a character does a nice parody of Scott, who is by far the worst offender.
The trouble is that while this Britannica meets Hollywood approach pads the book out and can beggar belief while interfering with the action, what the characters have to say is often interesting.
John Howard takes Pavlou to task in a nice exercise in comparative review: ‘On Writing and Decipher‘ (Walden East). I agree with Howard that he sometimes crams too much in “as if Pavlou wasn’t sure that he’d ever be able to write another novel”, but John misses the point in calling the four-page bibliography at the end a “tad pretentious”.
Had he looked more closely, he would have noticed that the works listed include:
Matheson, Ralph K., Ecological Controls in Oil Production, USC Press, San Francisco, 2009
Scott, Richard, Tales of the Deluge: A Global Report on Cultural Self-Replicating Genesis Myths, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2008.
Stel’s sense of humour invariably steps in each time he goes right over the top. This redeems the dull bits. And I’ll read his next book.