Whenever the subject turns to the vastness of the universe (it happens more often than you’d think), I hear in my head the bass reverberation of Carl Sagan’s eager voice marveling at “billions and billions” of stars as he explored the foundations of exobiology in his iconic PBS series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Most of us don’t see much of the night sky anymore; in truth, ambient light from the earth makes this pastime much less vivid and so much more difficult. Apart from staring open-mouthed at low-slung harvest moons while driving at night, my last prolonged look at the stars was accomplished by leaning back in a sling-chair, another under my feet, a bonfire roaring beside me, and a beer in my hand, to stare through the gap made by the trees stretching over my head. It was just enough, though, to make me feel wonderfully insignificant. While we may be dimly aware that the wish-granting shooting star we can’t help but look for is actually a meteor (the light trail of a meteoroid—trust me, you want to know this), we don’t think at all about its chances of hitting the earth. In his latest Wyman Ford novel, Douglas Preston introduces Abbey Straw, a twenty-year-old Princeton drop-out and astronomy savant, who witnesses a meteorite’s (a meteoroid that made it through earth’s atmosphere) spectacular fall to earth, and its apparent landing in the ocean off the coast of Maine. Her persistent search for the nickel-iron space rock she hopes to sell on eBay yields instead a greater mystery that will bring her to Ford’s astute attention.
Wyman Ford, ex-CIA and ex-monk, has already been pursuing a related, disturbingly genocidal, mystery in the jungles of Cambodia. It is impossible not to admire this man’s decency as he works in the midst of the most unsavory characters, theirs and ours. After putting some key pieces together with Abbey, and with her help to decipher the science, Ford tries to convince his mired government of the enormity of the situation. It is Abbey, however, who really saves the day. And the world. Of course, Preston is no stranger to world-ending events and this book has its share of intelligent underdogs struggling to make an ego-driven bureaucracy use some common sense. His gift as a writer keeps the focus on the larger issue (not telling) and the story rolling along at his customary fast pace. After reading his dynamic, frequently disgusting, descriptions, I, for one, will never touch a crack pipe; I will look askance at a gift of a ‘honey’ gemstone necklace (radiation poisoning); and I will most definitely never venture onto a storm-wracked ocean without a seasoned professional at the helm. And as I put away the groceries, clear out the dryer’s lint trap, and keep the dust at bay (not well), I will think of the Hubble Space Telescope finding ten thousand galaxies in a tiny spot of the night sky and Abbey’s answer when questioned about the possibility of intelligent life in the universe: “The math requires it.” Maybe I’ll work on a foil hat, too. Just in case.