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DUST, a novel by Charles Pellegrino, Avon Books, March 1998, 388 pages/$15.95 hardback, ISBN: 0380787423.

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Charles Pellegrino is a well-known scientist ("a scientific gadfly," the book jacket calls him) with impressive credentials. He assisted Dr. Robert Ballard with research that led to the finding of the Titanic, and worked out the details of cloning dinosaurs using blood retrieved from insects frozen in amber. This last idea came to the attention of Steven Spielberg and provided the scientific underpinning for Jurassic Park.

The first work of Pellegrino's that I read was Return to Sodom and Gomorrah (Avon Books, 1995), a fascinating archeological look at the history of the Holy Land. He has written several works of non-fiction dealing with science, as well as two other novels, one (The Killing Star) with sf writer George Zebrowski.

Pellegrino must be the natural inheritor of Philip Wylie's mantle of cynicism. Wylie pounded the hell out of Earth with nuclear weapons in his novel Triumph. (He and Edwin Balmer had destroyed it earlier in their careers with When Worlds Collide.) He wrote Generation of Vipers, which essentially trashed Western culture, and They Both Were Naked, a damning indictment of the culture of youth. Wylie, a genuine misanthrope, didn't seem to like anybody.

I get a little of that same feeling from Charles Pellegrino, whose novel, Dust, describes the destruction of the world through the extinction of insects. Philip Wylie wasn't a scientist, but Charles Pellegrino is. In fact, he's a polymath, and he knows what he's talking about.

All of which makes this a scary book, and one not for the squeamish. Set a few years in the future, the novel proceeds from a solid understanding of science and technology. Additionally, Pellegrino is an astute observer of society and his characters are surprisingly vivid. Even so, he seems to delight in finding new and truly revolting ways to kill them off. The action gets off to a quick start when a Long Island town is invaded by mites whose numbers, unchecked by their natural predators, has ballooned, forcing them to seek new prey. Acting like miniature pirahanas the mites swamp the town, devouring everything in their path—including the wife of the lead character, Richard Sinclair, who works at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island.

This is only the beginning, however; only the first and mildest manifestation of what is to become the complete collapse of the planet's ecology. Throw in a particularly harrowing subplot about people trapped in a lighthouse by a swarm of maddened vampire bats, a prion-infected missile defense commander who really hates Frank Sinatra, and a blimp made of corn silk, and you've got a book that takes you off into some weird places.

Aside from an occasional flash of wry humor, Pellegrino allows little relief. Things just keep getting worse as the biosphere deteriorates. Scientists race to revive the extinct species by using the DNA from amber-preserved insects combined with that of the few survivors of the die-off. In the meantime, an anti-science movement fueled by a hate-spewing talk show host who has seized his opportunity to become a genuine cultural force threatens to destroy everything scientist Richard Sinclair and his colleagues are working for.

In an extensive postscript (subtitled "Reality Check"), Pellegrino lines up all his scientific assumptions and gives the real-life examples on which they are based. This material is, like all reality, even more jaw-dropping than the novel. It's enough to make you want to forget what you have read.

Those paying attention to the news media for the past few years may have noticed some items here and there, puzzling stuff; frogs seem to be dying off worldwide, for example, and there have been a number of disastrous plankton blooms in the oceans. There was even a mite breakout on Long Island in 1997. No one is quite sure why the frogs are dying, but as for plankton, Pellegrino suggests that it may well be blooming here and there because we have fished out the top quarter mile or so of the ocean. That's where the fish that eat the plankton used to live. In their absence, the stuff has grown uncontrollably.

Pellegrino's point has been made before: everything is connected to everything else. It's a point well worth emphasizing once more, however. Whether you support the Gaia hypothesis or not, the fact remains that our well-being is dependent on any number of other species. Not for nothing are we taught about the food chain. If a link is removed, even the smallest and most pestiferous, there may be disastrous consequences.

We'd all do well to keep this in mind as we drive our SUVs, talk on the cell phone, and sip lattes at Starbucks. Charles Pellegrino reminds us that although we've made a shaky and temporary peace with nature and think we have her subjugated, she always wins in the end.


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