(2006-08-31) Hyperion Hardcover 2006
"Monsters aren’t real…. Are they?"
By starting his first novel thus, Dave Freedman acknowledges the challenges set forth for both himself and the reader: for Freedman, to create a science thriller featuring a frightening but realistic monster; for the reader, to believe that such a monster could exist. Touted by publisher Hyperion as "this summer’s spine-chilling beach read," Natural Selection aspires to follow in Michael Crichton and Peter Benchley’s footsteps with a fast-paced story featuring massive, super-intelligent and deadly flying sea rays.
No one said the challenge would be easy. Freedman attempts to make the fantastic seem possible by following a team of marine biologists chasing the mysterious and elusive "demon ray" and trying to make scientific sense of the clues revealing the animal’s incredible adaptations. Complete with Dan Brownesque tiny chapters (including prologue and epilogue, 96 in a 414-page book) filled with dramatic interjections and punctuated with cliffhanger chapter endings, Natural Selection certainly fits the bill as a beach read in that it is fast and fun. But is it good?
Freedman’s primary task is to convince the reader of the plausibility of demon rays coming into existence through the process of natural selection, the theory that organisms evolve by passing from generation to generation certain traits that promote survival. An example of natural selection would be a virus adapting to the point that it threatens marine life throughout the entire world. Another would be an underwater predator, having lost its prey to the virus, finding new prey on land by using its conveniently adapted lung and strong, rippling wing muscles to learn to fly.
Freedman works hard to sell this idea, but ultimately it amounts to the building of a house of cards, each story becoming less and less convincing, until finally the whole thing collapses under the weight of its own absurdity. In some instances it isn’t so much a matter of possibility as plausibility, as some adaptations, while possible, seem incredibly unlikely (such as the lack of an explanation for why a deep ocean fish would develop a lung). In other instances it is assertions of suspect facts used to prove the validity of even more suspect theories. I am still unclear as to whether the quetzateryx or Fritz Bedecker ever existed (if Google is a reliable indicator, they did not), or if Freedman fabricated them to make it appear possible that flying rays could actually exist.
Even a scientifically dubious science thriller can redeem itself in part if it is sufficiently thrilling. Freedman’s storytelling formula is potentially thrill-making, as the short chapters make for quick reading, and the cliffhanger chapter endings compel the reader onward. However, the payoffs in subsequent chapters rarely justify the cliffhangers, which seem to be there not so much to entertain the reader as to keep him or her reading.
Freedman’s characterization is lacking as well. As this is a fast-paced thriller, one would not expect much time spent in detailed characterization. Natural Selection stays true to its genre by keeping it brief, with a couple of paragraphs of description when each character is introduced. Unfortunately, the characters are cliché, leaving little suspense as to who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, who will live, and who will die.
The story’s hero, marine biologist Jason Aldridge, is described by Freedman as "male ambition in a wetsuit." Jason is the Byronic Hero of the modern age, his passion directed toward his career, marine biology. Despite being the team leader, he’s a loner, unable to trust in anyone but himself. Fortunately for Jason, there is his colleague Lisa Barton, nicknamed "Soccer Mom," whose purpose in this story is to transform Jason into a husband and father by teaching him how to be more trusting of and nurturing towards others. Also in the crew is Darryl Hollis, who is 7/8 African American and 1/8 American Indian, meaning that he is athletic, good with a bow, and has a mystical connection with nature. He refers to himself in the third person as "Big Dog" (no one else seems to apply this nickname to him), and in an all-time low for his character, at one point he makes a joke boasting about his physical endowments. Craig Summers is Darryl’s "slovenly white guy" sidekick. Darryl’s wife, Monique, cries whenever anything goes wrong and is preoccupied with babies.
Then there is Phil, a lazy bum who is, incredibly, Jason’s best buddy, and who despite being the only member of the crew who does not have a PhD in the sciences (he flunked marine biology in college), is the only one who owns a laptop computer. This fact proves to be a central element of the story. Because he is an incompetent in a science thriller (c.f. the incompetent in science fiction), he poses a threat to the rest of the crew.
Jason and crew work for Harry Ackerman, a dot com millionaire who sees a fortune to be made in the discovery of a new species, a la Carl Denham in King Kong. A businessman in a science thriller, Ackerman performs the role of human bad guy (c.f. the businessman in science fiction). Freedman makes it a point to reveal that Ackerman is a lawyer as well, which does not appear to serve any purpose in the story other than to provide the reader with another reason to hate him, and to overtly link him to the demon ray (after all, the ray is related to the shark, which is a name commonly used as an insult for a lawyer).
Just as there is a human analog to the monstrous demon ray, Freedman also has a form of natural selection play out in the human realm, as there is a direct correlation between each crew member’s potential to be a father or mother and his or her chances of survival. Thus, in Natural Selection, the ability to settle down and start a family becomes an evolutionary advantage. Procreation and protection of the young are prevalent themes throughout the novel, as Darryl and Monique obsess over their future progeny, "Soccer Mom" Lisa turns Jason into a suitable father (the only character growth occurring in the story), and the crew spend most of the second half of the book saving infants, be they humans or woodland creatures, from the demon ray’s predations.
Thus, in a novel showing natural selection at work in the natural world there is also a social Darwinism present that promotes traditional family values, with the male hero assuming the role of husband, father and breadwinner, while the feminine ideal is that of supportive wife and mother. One can imagine the likely sequel: picking up a few years later, Jason is now a prominent marine biologist, Lisa has finally become a soccer mom, and Jason/Lisa Jr. is their bright and beautiful child. Jason, perhaps too successful now, has become emotionally estranged from his stay-at-home wife, with Jr. suffering the consequences of this loss of familial bliss. Enter the demon rays, which threaten wife and child, and only Jason, brilliant marine biologist, husband and father, can save them. Coming to a bookstore, and possibly, a television movie of the week near you.
Freedman writes with a lot of enthusiasm and tries earnestly to engage the reader, but ultimately Natural Selection proves too unbelievable in its premise and too unoriginal in its characterization and plot to be anything more than a beach read in the most common sense: fast and light, but the impression on the reader is as ephemeral as the days of summer are fleeting.
© 2006 Arthur Bangs
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