Some ecosystems are just plain evil. That's the premise of a new novel, Fragment, hitting shelves this month. It's a fun, hard science beach read, if you like monsters.
Written by first-time author Warren Fahy, Fragment is being marketed by Bantam as the next Jurassic Park. You can see why - it's packed with hard science factoids, nonstop action, flesh eating monsters who would give Guillermo Del Toro nightmares, and characters as wooden as the trees slaughtered to mass market this book. I don't mean this as criticism exactly. The novel does exactly what it sets out to do: tell a rip-roaring yarn, and teach you some real science in the process. No, it's not a literary masterpiece. But you'll have fun while you're reading it.
The setup is pretty clever. A reality TV show about scientists trying to make ill-defined discoveries on the high seas turns into an actual scientific expedition when the crew discovers an island full of animals who have been evolving independently for the past half billion years. Given that premise, you'd expect a lot of world building on the island, and Fahy comes through. He's at his best when describing the carnivorous whirl of freaktastic beasties on the tiny rock called Henders Island. It turns out to be the last fragment from an ancient supercontinent that existed before the Cambrian period (that's long before newfangled Jurassic times). Every single creature is carnivorous, cannibalistic, hermphroditic, and most of them are born pregnant.
It's a scary alien world out there, so of course the reality TV crew dives right in. After several lovingly-described gory deaths, the real action of the story kicks in. Our heroes and villains are introduced: all the good guys are scientists who love the laboratory; and the bad guy, called Redmond, is like the bizarro world version of Jared Diamond, who takes radical environmental positions purely for fame and money. I liked the idea that the bad guy is a science media whore, who is contrasted with the authentic scientists. There are actually some interesting debates between Redmond and good guys Nell and Geoffrey - Redmond believes that humans will inevitably destroy the planet because they're intelligent, while Nell and Geoffrey think intelligent life could save the planet in the end.
The big question for all of them is whether our ecosystem could survive a clash with the Henders Island ecosystem. In a series of extremely non-scientific tests, the scientists arrange cage matches between Henders beasties and our most invasive, deadly plants and animals. Kudzu vs. Henders clover. Mongoose vs. Henders rat. And so on. Verdict: Even the Henders clover can kick the asses of our most vicious animals. If Henders animals got exported to a continent, it would be death to the biosphere as we know (and love) it.
In between the weird animals and crazy adventures on Henders Island, there are also a lot of interesting and surprisingly accurate details about evolution and climate change over the planet's long history. Although I am not generally a fan of cheesy suspense novels, this one won me over because it exuded an infectious enthusiasm for science and it was obvious that Fahy had done his homework. Also, I liked the idea that an environmentally-aware cast of characters would decide that some ecosystems are not worth saving. Well, not all of them decide that. And that's what gives this book its suspenseful zoom.
If you like monsters and mad science - and who doesn't? - this is the perfect book to take on your vacation or on that long plane ride to a remote island. However, if you're looking for characters who move outside of two dimensions, you might want to give this one a pass.