Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review: Steve Alten's "Meg: Hell's Aquarium"

Miles below the crushing depths of the Philippine Sea, hidden beneath the crust of the Philippine Sea Plate, monsters dwell that should have died 65 million years ago. Luckily for us, they didn’t.
If you like your monsters big, mean and prehistoric, Steve Alten’s “Meg: Hell’s Aquarium” delivers the goods. It also effectively illustrates the point that there is always a bigger fish in the sea.

A follow up to Alten’s “Meg: Primal Waters,” Hell’s Aquarium continues the story of Jonas Taylor, the deep sea diver/ paleontologist who first discovered giant Megalodons, prehistoric cousins of the Great White Shark, on a top-secret dive to the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean.

Taylor, the lone survivor of the doomed Navy expedition, is demonized and ridiculed for what he says he saw—until he becomes a paleontologist and manages to find one of the Megs again years later. The Meg follows Taylor to the surface and chaos ensues.
Taylor, along with his wife, Terry and daughter, Dani, is now running his own aquarium, the Tanaka Institute in California, with his own captured Megs—the 76-foot, 50-ton Angel and her brood of “pups,” Angelica, Lizzie, Mary Kate, Ashley and Belle.

The story begins with the Meg from Angel’s first litter, Scarface, becoming lunch for something much, much larger—a creature known as a pliosaur—one of a menagerie of prehistoric creatures that have been discovered to inhabit a vast sea beneath the Philippine Sea Plate. These creatures, it seems, who were once air breathers, have evolved gill slits, which enabled them to stay hidden and procreate all these millions of years.

Now, an Arab gentleman by the name of Fiesal Bin Rashidi, who also happens to be filthy rich and a relation of the Prince of Dubai, has built an enormous aquarium in Dubai, big enough to house these monsters from the deep. Who does he want to enlist to help capture these creatures? Not Jonas Taylor, as you would suspect, but his son, twenty-year-old David, who is home from college on summer vacation. David also happens to be an expert pilot of a new high-tech sub called a Manta Ray, which can withstand the tremendous pressures at the bottom of the Pacific.

David is enlisted, against the will of his father, to help train a team of pilots to dive deeper than any man (or woman) has ever gone before and lure these dangerous creatures into an array of awaiting nets. Unfortunately, once these pilots get down to a few thousand feet, they wig out because of the claustrophobic darkness and the very real possibility of becoming a snack for a sea serpent. It seems David and his newfound girlfriend, Kaylie, a navigator and pilot in her own right, are the only ones who are up to the task. But of course, all does not go as planned.

As if they didn’t have enough problems, it seems Jonas’ fish at the Tanaka Institute are becoming restless and the holding pens are becoming too small for the steadily growing Megs and their ginormous mother. An overzealous animal rights group (called R.A.W.) is also pushing the institute to release the Megs back into the wild and possess no scruples about their methods.

Well, I won’t give away the rest, but suffice it to say that the biggest showdown of all time eventually ensues.

A literary agent once told me that you shouldn’t have too much killing at the beginning of a horror book; you should build up to it. But since this is science fiction, I guess the rule doesn’t apply, and that’s great, because everyone wants to get to the part where the Megs start chowing down. Am I right? It does tend to get a bit graphic, but I don’t think there is really a non-graphic way to describe a giant fish eating people.

Even though Jonas is 66, I figure if Harrison Ford can still be Indiana Jones, then Jonas Taylor can still pilot a sub and tame a giant shark or two. I realize that David will probably eventually assume Jonas’ role just as Mutt will probably assume Indy’s role and Dirk Pitt, Jr. will assume the role of his father in Clive Cussler’s adventures.

One thing I love about Steve Alten is the research he does for his books. The man does have a Ph.D., so I assume he knows how to do research. I actually learn things when I read his books—Domain, Goliath, The Loch—just like I always did with Michael Crichton, one of my all-time favorite authors.

I’ve read pretty much all of Mr. Alten’s books and I can say unequivocally that this is his best yet. This book moves along at a great clip and has excellent character development. It’s not a throw-away, run-of-the-mill page-turner—it’s a book that will stand the test of time.

Now out in paperback at about 500 pages, Hell’s Aquarium features two different collectible covers and retails for $9.99.

Check out Steve's Web site at http://www.stevealten.com.