by Douglas J. Preston
Reviewed by Patrick Anderson
Washington Post Book World
In Douglas Preston's new bestseller, American scientists engage in a lengthy dialogue with God, whereupon all hell breaks loose. The violent aftermath of this divine dialogue is not God's fault -- His is the most rational voice in the book. The trouble, rather, comes from us mortals, who in this case include a clueless president, an egocentric scientific genius, a greedy lobbyist in the Abramoff mode, a hypocritical TV preacher in Virginia, a crazed evangelist in the Arizona desert and several thousand excitable Christians who are easily convinced that the supposed voice of God is really Satan and the time is nigh for the rapture and Armageddon.
A Nobel Prize-winning scientist named Gregory Hazelius has persuaded Congress to build the world's largest supercollider, which will investigate the big bang and potential energy sources. Hazelius and a dozen handpicked scientists are starting the project deep under an Arizona mesa, but there are problems with Isabella, its all-powerful computer. Meanwhile, back in Washington, worse trouble is brewing. A scheming lobbyist known as Crawley, determined to squeeze millions out of the Navajo Nation, enlists the help of the Rev. Don T. Spates, a celebrated TV evangelist. For a price, Spates tells his audience that the Isabella project is anti-Christian because it accepts the big-bang theory rather than the biblical version of creation. Spates needs the money because recent publicity about him and two prostitutes in a motel has slowed his cash flow.
The White House sends former CIA man Wyman Ford to investigate problems with the Isabella project. This being a piece of popular fiction, he finds that one of the scientists is his onetime lover, Kate Mercer, which complicates matters, but not nearly as much as the voice of God, who speaks to the scientists through the supercomputer. At first they suspect that a hacker is playing tricks on them, but God's ability to reveal their inmost secrets persuades most of them that He's for real.
Exchanges like this follow:
"Are you saying that our reality is an illusion?"
"Yes. Natural selection has given you the illusion that you understand fundamental reality. But you do not. How could you? Do beetles understand fundamental reality? Do chimpanzees? You are an animal like them." God finally reveals that He has a new mission for humankind: "The great monotheistic religions were a necessary stage in the development of human culture. Your task is to guide the human race to the next belief system." But whether that will be possible is unclear because of alarming events unfolding outside the scientists' underground sanctuary.
The trouble begins when Spates enlists the help of Pastor Russell Eddy, leader of the Gathered in Thy Name Mission in Blue Gap, Ariz. Eddy, a crazed, penniless and sometimes homicidal evangelist, agrees to spy on the Isabella project for his hero, Spates. Eddy overhears the scientists talking about their dialogues with God and decides this is blasphemy. Soon God -- his God -- tells him what to do, and Eddy sends an e-mail to thousands of like-minded Christians announcing: "The End Days have arrived. The Apocalypse and the Rapture are at hand." He declares that Hazelius, the project director, is the Antichrist, that he and his scientist-disciples are talking to Satan, and that it's time for all believers to join Eddy's Army of God in the final battle against the Antichrist.
Several thousand wild-eyed believers gather on a mesa while the unwitting scientists are busy talking to God, and they soon overpower the forces of law and order. The president, back in Washington, orders troops to the scene but, as is often the case, the Pentagon needs several days to get its act together. What follows is bloody and unsettling. At one point, as gunshots and explosions rage, we get this: "All Ford could think of was Hieronymus Bosch's 'Last Judgment.' The eastern end of the mesa, where Isabella had been, was a vast pillar of incandescent fire boring up into the night sky....People wandered aimlessly about the ghastly hellscape or ran about, crying dementedly."
But Douglas Preston has more on his mind than a slam-bang ending. As the scientists flee for their lives, we are given surprising new information about the God who has been speaking through Isabella. In the end, human history is changed by these possibly miraculous events -- whether for better or worse is open to debate. Blasphemy will be considered precisely that by many readers on the Christian right, and even a secular humanist would have to say its bad guys are cartoonish. But the scenes of howling Christians eagerly killing fellow Americans who don't share their views are chilling, and history reminds us that the more feverish advocates of most religions have been spilling innocent blood for centuries. The novel is entirely readable, and its satire of religious extremism, if heavy-handed, often strikes home.