The world’s most powerful particle accelerator is coming online for the first time. Buried in a high mesa on a Navajo reservation, it is poised to make the greatest scientific discovery in the history of mankind. But on the eve of its momentous first run, something unexpected happens. An event so bizarre that the 12 men and women operating the experiment, some of the smartest people in the world, are unable to comprehend their findings.
As they seal themselves in the mesa and stall for time, the political leaders that helped fund the 40 billion dollar project become increasingly anxious. Elections are just around the corner and they want to know why progress has stalled. Meanwhile, religious leaders are concerned that these labcoats are attempting to disprove god. What are the heathens hiding as their experiments dim the lights of Las Vegas? Just what the hell is going on up there?
Enter Wyman Ford. Former monk and ex-CIA agent, Ford has the right combination of skills needed to integrate himself with the scientists and to discern the cause of their delays. Wyman dons the guise of an anthropologist, sent by Washington to sooth the Navajo tribes that surround the particle accelerator. Tribes that grow weary of more promises not kept and increasingly wary of the experiments being conducted on their holy ground. But it is when Wyman discovers that he still has feelings for one of the scientists that he realizes why they picked him for this job.
If you take the cocksure and dysfunctional scientists from Crichton’s Sphere, who dare meddle in secrecy with elements beyond their understanding, and combine them with the philosophical musings on science and religion that make up Sagan’s Cosmos, the result would be Douglas Preston’s Blasphemy. Equal parts techno-thriller and cultural observation, Blasphemy is one of the rare novels that entertains and enlightens at the same time. There is plenty of suspense, unsolved murders, devious characters, conflicting motivations, and tense action in Blasphemy. But the central clash takes place between two very real contemporary opponents: Science and Religion.
It would be easy to blame Preston for taking sides on this conflict. Religious readers may be offended with his portrayal of Christians and see the lionization of science on every page. But that is not what this book is about. One of the worst offenders in this novel is presented as a figurehead for science. And the conclusion of Blasphemy is sure to upset scientists as much as theists. Preston’s biting satire is not aimed at those to one side, it is aimed at those to the extremes. At scientists and religious leaders who replace the curiosity that drives us towards truth with the absolute conviction that paralyzes one from seeking it.
Blasphemy, then, is a call for moderation. Douglas Preston casts both sides in an equally negative light in order to reveal the flaws of our fanaticism. He seems to be saying that without doubt and skepticism we become violently sure of ourselves. We replace the humility of not knowing with the anger of not having our every proclamation trusted and accepted. The evangelist who gains power and wealth through his congregation, despite his hypocritical sins, is presented alongside the megalomaniac scientists that are willing to falsify data to further their ideological agenda. Both sides have their figureheads coursing through the book, their creeds like matter and anti-matter which explode on contact.
The tragedy of this cultural war is that it rests on a false premise. Religion was always meant to be a search for truth. It arose naturally from ancient people asking reasonable questions. When a person lays down a spear, it does not move on its own. It only moves when another person makes it move. From these observations, thousands of tiny examples a day, it was natural to conclude that the sun was moved by more powerful men. The winds came from even stronger men. To mock these conclusions is to mock logic, for it was airtight considering the data these thousands of individual tribes had at their disposal.
Up until very recently the greatest scientific discoveries have been made by men of the cloth, not people in labcoats. But something happened around the age of enlightenment. So many of the theories of old fell all at once that the church became threatened. Clinging to the power of divine revelation, they fought against the truth in an attempt to maintain their perfect authority. This has only reduced their claims and entrenched them on the wrong side of discovery.
At the same time, science has become just as sure of itself. This, despite the self-correcting nature of its discipline. The more often individual elements are proven wrong, the stronger its members feel about its methods, which is the antithesis of the current struggles that religion endures. Growing ever more complicated, science speaks less and less to the general public. The field rarely deals with the emotional matters which move people to support a cause. Its practitioners are seen as cold, over-logical, unfeeling, meddlesome, arrogant, and dangerous.
If it seems like this struggle does not merit the label Culture “War”, consider that one side sees the other as killing about 1.5 million innocent lives each year. The other side sees fanatics flying into buildings and blowing themselves up, they see a rejection of modern medicine, they see diseases that could be treated via stem-cell research. Whichever side you fall on does not change the fact that both sides see incredible harm in the other. It is a very real divide that paints my own country in two colors every November. There is a battle going on, and Douglas Preston forces us to recognize it in Blasphemy.
Of course, many readers are not happy with this bit of introspection. Christians in particular have been critical of the book. And this is what frightens me: the armies which clash in Preston’s novel should not be ones that we identify with. No scientist should read about the character of Hazelius and empathize with his actions and ideology. No Christian should read about Spates and Eddy and see these abominations as real members of their faith. The terrifying result of Preston’s novel is to see how many readers and critics rush to the defense of pure evil. Their own fanaticism is too great to see that Preston is not supporting one side or the other, but something wholly original today: Neither!
Blasphemy ends with a bizarre compromise, one which convinces me that Douglas Preston’s goal is not to foment the flames of theism vs. atheism. His goal is to examine a possible path forward and beyond. It is an amazingly original conclusion, one which is sure to displease both sides of the debate. But that is the nature of compromise. And a middle-ground is never as distasteful as mutually-assured destruction. Consider this: The rational leaders of science and faith today have proposed that the two go their separate ways. That religion be the sole proprietor of morality and spirituality and that science lead the way in the discovery of cold truth. This is the solution put forward by moderates from both camps. It is an admission of defeat. A bugle horn for rallying armies to one side or another of a great divide. What Preston urges, and what so many are criticizing him for, is the possibility of us all fighting together. Fighting against tyranny and abuse. Fighting to discover scientific and ethical truths at the same time. It is a refreshing idea in a contemporary climate that urges we part company and go our separate ways.
These solutions fail because most of us are both spiritual AND logical. Most of us want to be guided by reason, but also to be overwhelmed with wonder. To undersand the source of a rainbow, but to be able to feel a rush of spirituality when we encounter just the right one. Our protagonist, Wyman Ford, is not a former monk and ex-CIA scientist by accident. He is the common ground that exposes the extremes to either side. Logical and skeptical, able to reason and feel, characters like Wyman and Begay are the ones we should celebrate in Preston’s novel. Aligning ourselves to either side simply exposes the urgent need for this debate and for more books like Blasphemy which inspire them.
If this sounds like heady stuff, don’t worry. The book is a thrill-a-minute; the philosophical musings are hardly noticed. They are necessary to the plot and they propel this amazing story further and faster like enormous magnets. Just as The Da Vinci Code entertained and stirred controversy at the same time, Blasphemy will be a book you can’t put down… and then can’t stop thinking about once you do.
The hardback is practically being given away at Amazon for $8.99. Grab a copy right now. I can not recommend it highly enough.