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Decipher by Stel Pavlou
Review by Ernest Lilley
St. Martin's Griffin Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 0312366965
Date: 09 January 2007 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Maybe Stel Pavlou's first novel (here in its second paperback edition) is a jumble of science, myth, action, adventure and eco-bleating. Maybe it does read like a Stargate SG1 episode (several, actually) and maybe it's not what you call a mature literary work. But it is a page turning blast through the interface between science and religion and it's chock full of half baked popular science backed up by five solid pages of bibliography...which is actually a lot more than you can say about most SF. It's thick, and its fun, and if you can get over the fact that it's set up as a mainstream techno-thriller rather than lame-themed SF...you'll love it.

If "slipstream" is mainstream fiction written with SF sensibilities, as Patrick Nielsen Hayden suggests in our interview with him, what do you call SF written with a mainstream sensibility? If it works, you can call it a good read, though that begs the question. At any rate, Decipher is a case in point.

The sun, we discover the hard way, is a pulsar with an eleven thousand year period. Pulsar's are variable intensity stars, and what we discover is that once every 1.1 millennia it ejects enough plasma to superheat the atmosphere, melt the poles, and wreak general havoc on anything living. This is accompanied by gravity waves which trigger enough seismic disturbances to reshape the face of the planet. That's the bad news. The good news is that the last time this happened, just before recorded history, someone was almost ready to defend the world, and though their civilization might have been left in ashes, they sent emissaries around the world to finish preparations for the next time. And that time is now.

What ancient civilization was capable of building a planetary defense system before (our) recorded history? Sure. Atlantis. Been there, done that in everything from Doc Smith's Lensman series to Stargate SG1, which this book bears no little resemblance to, but I can promise you that Stel Pavlou has done his homework, added his own ideas, about technology, religion, the history of human civilization and geopolitics and has made a familiar theme his own.

If you're an SG1 fan, hopefully you'll find the similarities more comforting than annoying. Like what? Well, for on thing, his main protagonist is a dead ringer for Daniel Jackson, SG1's archeo-linguist, who's able to decipher anything and was always certain that there was something going on before the Egyptians and Sumerians.

Our boy is Dr. Richard Scott, who's been making enemies by showing how ancient texts had been calling Christianity into question for decades. When the Catholic Church leans on Scott's university to fire him, he finds that he's got a better offer anyway. Crystal shards brought up from the South Pole have inscribed characters on them that really need deciphering, and he's just the man for the job.

Scott takes off on a whirlwind adventure around the globe and ultimately to Antarctica, where he has to deal with earthquakes, massive weather systems stirred up by the gravity waves, the Chinese army, ancient nanotechnology, nearly indestructible Carbon 60 crystals full of nanomanchines, an army of golems made out of same, and the realization of just about every biblical prophesy that ever scared a Sunday school class. Did I leave out the evil oil company that's trying to corner the market on C60 and that will stop at nothing to make sure no one else beats them to it?

Fortunately he's got help. There's a complexity theorist who could have stepped out of Jeff Goldblum's Jurassic Park role, a dewy eyed 19 year old grad student suffering from hero worship, the only marine in the Corps that can think (they said so, not me) and an oil company geologist that's as hard as a diamond, and just as pretty.

If the plot sounds light, well, it is. This is a scientific action adventure story rather than a finely wrought piece of SF, but for all that, it's an extremely well researched one. There's more science here than I've found in most hard SF, and many of the same themes expounded on by folks like Neal Stephenson and others.

Finally, I loved the ending, where the author makes good use of Christianity's technique of co-opting local religious rites and even buildings in order to give it its comeuppance. Unfortunately, I don't think for a minute that it would have the "Come to Kant" effect that the author no doubt thinks it would. After spending the entire book telling us that humanities religions were fabricated to send a message to the future, he falls into the trap of thinking that the message trumps the medium.

While Decipher may be popular science brain candy, it's still fun.

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