Thursday, September 4, 2008

Douglas Preston: Blasphemy

I bought Douglas Preston’s Blasphemy because I was interested in the context. It deals with a fictional US supercollider and the friction between science and religion. I was disappointed when the real US supercollider lost funding, so I was interested to see what Preston would do with the theme. This is my first Preston book, so I was not sure what to expect.

In this story, Gregory North Hazelius is a brilliant Nobel laureate who has driven the 40 billion dollar project to completion in the Arizona dessert. We join the story on the first trial run. With project delays, and little information coming from the scientific team, the President’s Science Advisor recruits Wyman Ford to go in and find out what’s happening. Ford’s background is unusual: ex-anthropologist, ex-CIA, ex-monk. Supposedly he is to go deal with community relations and try to head off a protest by the local Navajo population led by Nelson Begay. But maybe Wyman’s main qualification is that he has a past with the Assistant Director of the project, Kate Mercer.

Spicing up the story, we have lobbyist, Booker Crawley. Crawley is counting on a continuing revenue stream from the Navajo Nation even though the task of getting the project built is done. When they cancel his contract, he decides to show them that they need him. So he makes a large donation to the televangelist, Reverend Don T. Spates, to preach against it. Spates launches his attack, accusing the government of spending taxpayer dollars to try to disprove Genesis. The political fallout ((in another fictional election year) is immediate. Add Pastor Russ Eddy, who preaches at a struggling mission on Navajo land near the supercollider, and our cast is mostly complete.

I think it’s fair to tell you that I like Wyman, Mercer, and Begay. The rest of the cast comes off pretty badly. The plot moves in ways I was not expecting, but definitely explores the debate between science and religion. Does the government fund Secular Humanism as a new state religion? Does religion still address the needs of society? Do charlatans in all camps undermine the good offered by government, religion, and science? Is Native American spiritualism viable in today’s society?

Blasphemy carries a lot of serious undertones in a rollicking good story. But I can’t decide in hindsight whether the book was an attack on religion, or an attack on science. Maybe it’s a call for moderation, an attack on extremism from all sides.

No comments: