Book review: “Fragment” by Warren Fahy

I just finished reading a new science-fiction novel by Warren Fahy called “Fragment”. They can it an eco-thriller and it’s about an isolated island in the South Pacific, thousands of miles from the closest land that has been biologically isolated from the rest of the planet for 500 million years. Thus evolution has proceeded along a very different path, one that has resulted in an ecosystem so deadly and invasive that even one creature from it could result in devastation for every other organism on the planet. Of course, some folks stumble upon this island and the rollicking ride ensues.

By the third page of this book I had a pretty good idea of how it would end. Oh, not the details, mind you, but the overall arc mainly because it follows the predictable path trod before it by Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park”, the “King Kong” movies, and even Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Lost World.” In fact, “Fragment” falls squarely in the family line of novels that arose after the era of the Victorian Enlightenment, in which Man thought he had had conquered nature and was now its master. Inevitably, novels like Doyle’s rejected that hubris to show that however much Man thinks he’s in charge, Nature always triumphs. Or if it doesn’t, maybe it should.

Such thinking is even more fashionable today among those who warn of humanity’s dire effects on the environment, and so Fahy takes up that banner. He does so very well with an entertaining and fast-paced read that includes one big twist and lots of scientific talk. (I’m not expert enough to know whether the science is accurate, but I can say it’s not so convoluted that a layman can’t follow. Or you can skip it and still enjoy the story.)

And yet, it’s still the Nature Triumphs over Man formula. You have the deadly but shadowy reveal of the “monster,” the disastrous first encounter by our hero, the retreat and then plucky advance, the dupe who blusters and is then lost, the villain who hopes to exploit Nature and his inevitable gruesome yet poetic demise, the heroic ending. If you’ve seen Spielberg’s movie, you can track the plot points even as the details change.

That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the story. It’s a pageturner as you follow along the hero’s progress and wait to see what new creation emerges from his fertile imagination. If you expect a popcorn-cinema experience, a good beach novel, then you’ll be satisfied. But don’t expect any innovation of the genre as it plays out strictly by the numbers.

A couple of additional points: The novel’s protagonists are not religious. They are scientists with a penchant for seeing religion as an anthropological construct or superstition. And the one or two religious minor characters in the book are just that: superstitious and hostile to science. It’s not fatal to enjoyment of the book, but it would have been interesting to see how a faith-filled scientist—one who sees science as an aid to his faith and vice versa—would have approached this island.

And as you might expect, the character development is somewhat lacking. Most everyone plays to the stereotype: The TV producer who cares only about ratings, not one whit for the human beings she lives with, the conniving mustache-twirling villain, the blockhead soldier, the oblivious scientist who lets his fascination lead to his death, and so on. Not to mention the Skipper, Gilligan, and Marianne. (I’m only half-joking.)

You won’t read this for a discussion of the philosophy of science or a good debate over man’s place in the universe. You will read it for the fast-paced action scenes and the fascinating flora and fauna of Henders Island.

Putting the overpopulation set’s money where their mouths are

The inimitable Dale Price boils down the argument of another overpopulation nut, asking him to put his, well, pride, where his mouth is and lay it all on the line. In his satire, Dale responds to Steven Kotler’s call for a five-year moratorium on having children.

I suggest that a five year moratorium is nowhere near enough. Instead, thoughtful, responsible men like ourselves need to lead the way and have our testicles surgically removed.

Radical? I think not. Given the Mathusian nightmare our world is facing, it is the only responsible choice. Also, the drop in testosterone will do wonders for reducing wars, violence and the prevalence of professional sports.

I’ll go you one better, Dale: I think all these overpopulation nuts should lead the way in depopulation and put a slug of lead between their own eyes.

Oh wait, of course, it’s other people who are the overpopulation problem, never themselves.

In all his blather about declining resources, I would love to compare the amount of Earth’s limited resources Kotler consumes each year compared to, say, a family of five from Nigeria. Or an entire village in Nigeria. Yeah, I thought so.


An Inconvenient Truth, the Opera

Trousered Ape offers an hilarious and spot-on parody of Al Gore and the “climate change as fundamentalist religion” movement in his satirical opera “An Inconvenient Tragedy”. It features such characters as “Algor, an ambitious Spirit” and “Khi-oto, an Oriental sorcerer, servant to Algor” and “Oscar, a Golem”.

Helios: And now for you, false lying tricksters both,
Who prey on credulous simplicity:
I shall make plain to these good people here
That warm and cool belong of right to me.
Heat and humidity pervade the air
When I put forth my power day to day,
But chill winds, bitter frost, and snow abound
When I do dim myself and turn away.
You two are guilty of the grossest frauds,
Your vaunted cantrips naught but useless gauds!

Algor:  If this is true, our racket’s through.
Oh, this is very inconvenient.



Predicting lots of hot air and wind

Here’s the headline from CNN: “NOAA predicts above-normal ‘08 hurricane season” and the lede:

The approaching 2008 Atlantic hurricane season is likely to be above normal, with up to 16 named storms and up to five major hurricanes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday, citing climate conditions.

Sound familiar? It should: “NOAA Predicts Above Normal 2007 Atlantic Hurricane Season.” And how did that work out?

The 2007 season was the weakest in five years, despite two hurricanes making landfall at Category 5 intensity, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Great. Glad the forecasts are so helpful and aren’t just contributing to all the hype about hurricanes caused by SUVs. Nope, no hype at all.


April Fools protest (works as a verb and a noun)

I caption this photo: “Give me a job.” A group of layabouts chained themselves to a Bank of America branch in Boston today, in what they ironically described as an “April Fool” protest. Talk about truth in advertising.


They were protesting the bank’s investment in coal-powered electricity-generating plants. I suppose once Mummy and Daddy make bail for them out of the gardener’s begonia fund, they’ll head home to their apartments, turn on their electric-powered lights, grab a nice cool beverage out of the electric-powered fridge, and plop down in front of the electric-powered TV to watch themselves on the 11 o’clock news.

However, Melanie points out that I may be too harsh. She says they may not be hypocrites, but could be squatting in abandoned warehouses, living off the grid and fighting rats for scraps out of Dumpsters. We can only hope.

The ridiculousness of their position is that they offer no workable alternatives. You can’t build windmills, you can’t build nuclear power plants, you can’t build coal- or oil-fired plants. For groups like this, the solution is de-population, of course. Get rid of all those inconvenient people—besides wonderful me—and there’ll be plenty of resources to go around
for the privileged few who remain and nary a concern for the environment. Right.

[Photo credit: George Rizer/Globe Staff. Used without permission but for purposes of mockery and parody on April Fool Day and that makes it all better, right?]


Balancing organic against affordable

Since we’ve only one salary to live on, Melanie and I have made a resolution to get our budget into shape. A major part of that budget, of course, is food and because we love cooking and good food, we’re learning to be creative. It’s not like beef tenderloin was a regular entree (like never!), but we often pay more for every day items that are higher quality.

For example, we buy organic milk mainly because it is certified free of bovine growth hormones (BGH) and other additives that some say are harmful to developing children. I feel better knowing that Isabella and Melanie, who’s carrying Sophie now, aren’t ingesting it, however safe the government and the dairy industry say it is. Not to mention that it tastes better: 2 percent milk tastes like whole milk and even skim tastes like 1 percent.

Unfortunately, we pay about twice as much or even more per gallon for the privilege of being free of these additives. And it seems we’ll soon be forced to pay even more.

The forces that have driven grocery prices up sharply over the past year – growing demand for food in China and a global biofuels boom – have had an impact on the organic food market as well. Meanwhile, US farmers haven’t kept pace with demand for organic food, sales of which shot up 21 percent in 2006, and that has also sent prices soaring.

And supplies of organic soybeans and grains are squeezed – not only are they needed for human consumption, they serve as feed for the animals that will be sent to market as certified organic beef, chicken, and pork.

In addition to those aforementioned reasons, the process for going organic is extremely costly and time-consuming. For one thing it takes three years of no pesticides or any of the other materials before the organic label can be applied and all your resources have to be organic too, such as water and animal feed. The farmers just can’t go organic faster than the consumers do it and so demand outstrips supply and prices rise.

I don’t know if we’ll go without our organic milk or if we’ll just have more bean-and-rice dinners to compensate, but it’s not easy or cheap to do the right thing nutritionally for your family.

Life After People misses the mark, but still entertaining

We watched the History Channel special called Life After People. It’s supposed to be a realistic image of what the world would be like in the years and centuries after us if we all just disappeared one day.

And that’s where my first annoyance came from. It’s supposed to be based on science and fact, but they start with a completely unscientific scenario. Setting aside supernatural scenarios, the end of man would not come with a disappearance. Six and a half billion people do not just disappear. Yet the entire show was based on the premise.

So rather than having to deal with the effects of six billion corpses—say from a pandemic—on the ecosystem, creating food sources for pests who would then feed animals higher up the food chain, instead we’re told that rats and cockroaches and dogs would initially starve.

Then there was the whole anthropomorphication of nature and the treatment of humankind as a sort of parasite on Mother Earth whose loss would be a boon to “Gaia”. Give me a break. For a show with such a materialist outlook on the world, there was an awful lot of spiritualism and faith.

However, there were many good nuggets to be found in the hard sciences, which give us an appreciation for the fact that despite all our technological advancements, it will be the achievements of our ancestors that will outlast our own. When the last skyscraper is a moldering pile of iron oxide, the Great Pyramids of Egypt will still be standing. And when the biggest football stadium has been replaced by forest, the concrete works of the Romans will be a mute testament to their engineering. In fact, two artifacts of modernity that they suggest will remain for millennia are Mount Rushmore, carved as it is out solid granite in an ecologically stable environment with the only element of erosion being pellets of rain, and the Hoover Dam, which is so massive that 70 years after the last concrete was poured, some of the deepest bits of concrete were still curing.

And long after the last book is moldering dust and the last CD-ROM is useless plastic, the carved hieroglyphics and stone tablets and animal-hide scrolls of the Middle East will remain. Then again, if there’s no one left, do we really care what legacy of our civilization remains? Who will be around the appreciate it?

Of course, this is all bunk. This is not how the world will end and we will be around for a long tim—an eternity in fact. Because there is a God, a loving, personal Father who has gifted us with the possibility of eternal life, not in this world, but in the next and who has decreed that this world is finite and time-limited.

Why I don’t listen to global warming zealots.

Here’s why I don’t take the global warming zealots seriously. Because they don’t take it seriously. They predict dire consequences if we all don’t stop using electricity yet they offer no solutions.

If things were as bad as they claim, they’d demand that half of all cars get pulled off the road and half the coal-power plants be shut down immediately. Instead the hoi polloi drive their Priuses while their celebrity leaders fly coast to coast and buy carbon offsets which are, at best, energy neutral. Instead they block all attempts at building electricity generating capacity that doesn’t produce hydrocarbons.

Wind power? Forget it. Blocks the view and chews up birds. Hydroelectric? No way. Dams up river ecosystems. Nuclear power? Now you’re just crazy, man. Like, ain’t you never heard of the “China syndrome”, man, or Chernobyl?

So what’s the alternative?

As I said, I’ll consider taking it seriously when they do. They can have my internal combustion engine and electric-powered appliances, when Al Gore ditches his fancy mansion for pre-Industrial Age digs. In other words, never.

Oh, and I still haven’t received an explanation for why the same scientists warning about global warming today were all claiming back in the 1970s that we faced a new ice age.

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