Book Review by Steve Solomon


by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Tor, 1995. 468 pages.

THE BLURBS ON THE COVER of the paperback edition of Relic   compare it to Jurassic Park   and Alien.   Both comparisons have merit: Like Jurassic Park, Relic   is concerned with the topics of evolutionary biology and genetic manipulation. Like Alien, Relic   depicts people trapped in forbidding surroundings, fighting for their lives against a stealthy, ferocious, nigh-unstoppable predator.

However, there are differences, too. Jurassic Park   is a thriller with cautionary overtones, whereas Relic, as one critic put it, is a "straight thriller." Although ethical considerations are not wholly absent from Relic, the story emphasizes action and mystery over moralizing. Also, Relic   adds the romance of anthropology to the mix of paleontology and genetics offered up in Jurassic Park. The beast in Relic   is frightening and its treatment of its victims horrifying, but the total effect is neither as scary nor as stomach-churning as that of Alien.   I do not intend this comparison as a criticism of Relic; Alien   was a bit more of a scare than I like. (I should note at this juncture that I am comparing a book to movies. I have seen the first two Alien   films and Jurassic Park, but have not read the novels. I have read Relic, but the film version, entitled The Relic, has not been released as of this writing. Depending on how the filmmakers handle the gory scenes, The Relic   could be nearly as nauseating as Alien. It is also conceivable, but unlikely, that The Relic   could be turned into a Jurassic Park -like sermon on scientific ethics.)

I am not a scientist, but to me, the scientific details of this book have the ring of truth. Douglas Preston has a scientific background and once worked in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Relic   benefits from his familiarity with paleontology, genetics, anthropology, and computers. Pseudoscience is always more convincing, and thus more enjoyable, when it is extrapolated from solid scientific fact. Preston also manages to convey the creepiness of a huge, ancient building with many dark passageways, deserted exhibits, and nearly-forgotten storage rooms. He seems to know a thing or two about museum politics, as well.

Isaac Asimov once wrote an essay about science fiction in which he notes that the same premise can be used to write many different types of stories. For example, the premise that humanity is threatened by a vicious creature could be turned into a simple "gadget story" in which the creature is defeated with a gizmo invented by a scientist. With different emphasis, that same premise could be used to make deep philosophical points about the human condition. Relic   is not about the human condition. There is little or no character development. Rather than using conflict with the creature to illuminate the thoughts and feelings of the human characters, the authors use the human characters to spotlight the creature. Like Alien, Relic   is primarily a "monster story."

Thus, it is not surprising that characterization is one area in which Relic   is a bit weak. There are lots of stereotypes: greedy museum bureaucrats more interested in money than in good science; a perpetually dishevelled journalist; an eccentric professor; an idealistic young graduate student; a computer nerd; a tough-as-nails, overweight detective; a skeptic who consistently underestimates the monster and gets people killed in the process. Occasionally we learn something interesting about someone, but not much is made of these facts: One character has recently lost her father and is considering leaving the museum to return to the family business, but relatively little is said about her internal struggles. A character who shows signs of potential individuality is killed before that potential can be realized. Even the fact that one character has experience as a big-game hunter was obviously written in as a resource for fighting the monster. Special Agent Pendergast, one of the more interesting figures, has something of an "X-Files" feel about him. To be fair, Pendergast and Fox Mulder are very dissimilar in some ways, but the overall effect of Pendergast--a highly literate, cultivated, and apparently multilingual outsider, more competent than, and at odds with, other FBI agents--ends up being quite Mulder-like.

Despite these shortcomings, Relic   is a lot of fun, a real page-turner. I often stayed up much too late because I just couldn't stop reading. So what if everything revolves around the monster? That didn't stop me from enjoying this book immensely. The plot is interesting, the science is thought-provoking, the setting is creepy, the monster is formidable. If you want an enjoyable scare, read Relic. I think you'll like it.

Edited June 16, 1996 / Updated December 13, 1996

Copyright ©1996 by Steven R. Solomon. All rights reserved.
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