This article is reprinted from an original post on The Podium, published back in Jan 8, 2000.
For some years now, Charles Pellegrino has been one of my favourite science-fiction writers. His lack of fame is not easily understood, but I would suggest that it has something to do with his ability to straddle too many worlds at once: he is too reality-based to rank among the SF masters (Niven, Clarke, Asimov), and too technically oriented to cross into the mainstream lists. His closest mainstream parallel is Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, etc.). But Pellegrino’s encyclopaedic knowledge of history and many sciences transcends Crichton’s medical specialization and Hollywood sensibility. Reading Pellegrino’s books is more of an educational experience than a literary one. His novels are textbooks disguised as entertainment.
My exposure to Pellegrino thus far has been via three novels: Flying To Valhalla, its sequel The Killing Star, and now Dust. It’s clear from this sample that the man has a morbid fascination with global catastrophes and the end of the world. Whether it be via alien invasion or ecological collapse, Pellegrino has the scientific clout to make Armageddon believable and terrifying.
I was first struck by Pellegrino’s pervasive, insidious and fatalistic rationality when, in The Killing Star, he provided a compelling counterargument to Carl Sagan’s famous premise of “any alien civilization we encounter will necessarily be peaceful since they will have solved their own domestic quarrels before venturing to the stars.” Pellegrino responded with three rules:
- Wimps don’t become top dog (i.e., the dominant species of a planet is never a passive vegetarian, but an expansionist, carnivorous warrior)
- The top dog will always ultimately consider his interests above your own
- He will assume the same of you
With that logic, Pellegrino argued that interstellar meetings will invariably become violent. It’s therefore in everyone’s best interest to destroy every alien space-faring civilization we encounter, ‘cause they’ll be doing the same. This, he suggested, explains why project SETI has heard no sign of interstellar intelligence: they’re all smart enough to stay quiet; the loud ones shouting “We’re here! We’re here!” were wiped out early on.
This sounds like paranoid fluff, I know. But the man’s inventive genius compels pause. He describes a doomsday device he calls a “relativistic missile” which physicists now concur can be built. He was the first to describe a recipe for cloning dinosaurs, long before Jurassic Park. He has designed a viable interstellar rocket drive, and was involved in the early 1970’s debates on whether a comet impact could have killed the dinosaurs. A genuine polymath, Pellegrino demands admiration.
Dust is by far Pellegrino’s most terrifying novel. In it, he suggests a mechanism for the periodic spates of global extinction (having occurred 33 million and 65 million years ago) having less to do with meteors than with a “genetic time bomb” built into insect species. With the sudden die- off of insects around the world, a chain reaction of ecological catastrophes ensues, culminating with nuclear war brought about by environmental insecurity.
As is his wont, Pellegrino has peppered Dust with fascinating scientific trivia: for example, the rapid evolution of a filter-speeding sponge into a predacious carnivore, the link between prion diseases and the origins of life, and the unexplained global spontaneous crystallization of almost all laboratory glycerin molecules in 1910.
Pellegrino is no literary master. His characters are not compelling creations who evolve through life journeys —mostly because his characters are his real-life scientist buddies! He does not pretend to explore the human condition as would a Rushdie, Conrad, Hemingway or Forster. But he provides hard supportable science, and surrounds it with plausible scenarios that cannot fail to compel greater thought.
Time spent reading Pellegrino is time well-spent indeed.