Dust by Charles Pellegrino

Avon Books, $15.95, hardcover, 387 pages

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Combine the physical excitement of a Michael Creighton novel with the intellectual excitement of a Stephen Jay Gould book of essays and you might have something like the new science fiction thriller Dust by Charles Pellegrino. Charles is not the first author to explore the possibilities of eco-disaster, but of what I've read so far, Dust is by far the best.

At first I did not think this would be the case. A seemingly improbably Cretaceous era scenario of a dinosaur mother-daughter pair being eaten by a tide of living blackness, combined with the dismal cover illustration, normally would have made me toss the book aside. But even in this Prologue Pellegrino's sense of biology, his attention to the details of nature, was compelling enough to cause me to read on. With the first chapter we have a similar pool of blackness engulfing two human lovers on the beach of Long Island, and I was thinking the entire book would be a fight against whatever this black life form was.

Perhaps the author, or the editor, or the publicist, thought such an introduction was necessary to sell the book to a mass audience used to King and Creighton. Dust is far meatier of a book than anything those two have produced. While the protagonist, Richard Sinclair, a scientist, has no more or less depth than Creighton's scientists in Jurasic Park, the story as a whole does. The story is based on the scenario popularized by Earth First! and envisaged by more than a few scientists: the collapse of ecosystems, simultaneously, on a global scale, for no classic reason. Most collapse-of-civilization scenarios rely on nuclear or biological warfare or a well-known science trend like global warming, ozone layer depletion, or overpopulation. Ecologists believe that an ecosystem is analogous to an airplane. Pull out a rivet, it may keep on flying. Keep pulling out rivets, and at some point, some rivet that was no more special than any other, it will collapse. An ecosystem might lose a species, or two, and have the elasticity to recover. But pull out enough species, or certain critical ones, and it may collapse.

What are the black man-eating pools? That problem is solved fairly early in the novel, giving way to a much bigger problem: the disappearance of insects. This may seem a boon to those who hate cockroaches and mosquitoes, and to farmers who lose parts of their crops each year to boll weevils and locusts. It is also the central mystery of the book: why would all insects disappear, all at once. Yet again, we see how derivative Dust is of Jurassic Park, when the scientists try to recreate insects from DNA entombed in amber.

The most fun character in the book is, of course, the bad guy. No, he did not find a way to kill all the insects. He's just a con artist, Rush Limbaugh type character who has taken upon himself to lead right-thinking, fundamentalist type, panic stricken people in a crusade against, no, not eco-disaster, but the scientist-heroes of the book.

There's plenty of action and no shortage of dangerous situations in the book for those who love action (which will probably be almost all that is left of the plot when the movie comes out). But for me the strength of the book lay in the revelations about nature and particularly the insect kingdom.