Tuesday, September 14, 2004

That’s More Like It

The Footprints of God, by Greg Iles, Read by Dick Hill, Brilliance Audio, 2003

There are many issues I have with this novel. At it’s very end, in audio format, Iles addresses some of the concerns in an apology of a kind, claiming that if he went into greater philosophical or scientific detail it would bore the layman and if he glossed over these bits a little more it would irritate the specialist. Perhaps this should have started the book, though that might have ruined the immediacy of the action. The book’s opening lines are “My name is David Tennant, M.D. I'm professor of ethics at the University of Virginia Medical School, and if you're watching this tape, I'm dead.”

Make no mistake; this is a thriller for real this time. The stakes are high, the cliffhangers nail bitingly good, and the end changes everything. It’s a thriller in which the ante keeps getting upped, the secrets come out a bit at a time, and you’re desperate for the end to come soon so the agonizing tension will finally be released.

Structurally, The Footprints of God alternates between the first person narrative of our hero, Dr. David Tennant, and an omniscient narration that follows any number of characters, filling us in on the behind the scenes of his hunters. This is a necessary structural choice, as we both need to be in David’s head for his hallucinations and ruminations regarding them, as well as we need to check in with the hunters for their next chess move. The woman in charge of the hunt, the sociopathic Geli Bauer, is a formidable enemy as well as a nice puncturing of stereotypical villain roles for women.

Iles is an accomplished, intelligent writer, and he manages to fill us in with the requisite background on quantum mechanics, brain medicine, and the history of the atomic bomb scientists without it ever once slowing down the plot or boring us with a welter of detail. The atomic bomb studies are a sort of counterpoint to the project currently underway, Project Trinity. They are frequently referenced as a parable of man going too far without understanding his actions’ consequences.

Project Trinity is a multi-discipline supercomputer project underway for the National Security Agency, run by eccentric technological genius, Peter Godin. The goal is artificial intelligence, approached from loading a human memory into the biggest, fastest supercomputer ever. This is accomplished through newly developed, deeper penetrating MRI scans on subatomic levels but with unpredictable consequences. For the project’s neurologist, this comes as uncontrollable sexual compulsions. For David Tennant, it’s narcoleptic seizures accompanied by intensely visual dream imagery.

And this is perhaps the weakest angle of the book. David’s hallucinatory visions involve first a view of the Big Bang and what immediately preceded it. After that, we are shown the early history of the earth, finally settling down with Jesus of Nazareth. What are we to make of all this? Is Tennant really seeing these things or is it a product of some brain damage from the high-intensity MRI scans?

That’s the mystery David and his psychologist, Rachel Weiss, are trying to untangle at the book’s beginning. At the opening of the story, David is in the process of making a videotape, a confession of the ethical lapses involved in Project Trinity including the one that led to the murder of his friend and coworker, Andrew Fielding. He is interrupted in this by Dr. Weiss, who has come looking for him after he missed his last three sessions.

Shortly after her arrival, the NSA, not wishing to see Project Trinity derailed by whistleblowers or ethics probes, sends an assassin to resolve the issue, as they resolved the concerns of Andrew Fielding. This begins the chase, which takes up a major portion of the book going from North Carolina to Tennessee to Washington, D.C. to Jerusalem to White Sands. It’s a fast-paced manhunt with David, dragging Rachel along for her own safety, keeping just barely one step ahead by his wits and by a low-grade precognition in his narcoleptic hallucinations.

What leads David and Rachel to Jerusalem is the increasingly religious aspects of his hallucinations. With fake passports so as to elude the searchers, David and Rachel sneak out of the country, throwing their pursuers off the track. Unfortunately, this is where the book goes seriously awry as well.

While there, David basically comes to understand God. Essentially a Deist type, God created the universe, but was outside it, able only to watch with fascination as it developed. Mankind amazed God, but deeply saddened him as well due to our destructive nature. By really trying, God was able to actually pop into our world in the form of Jesus. Iles knocks traditional Christian beliefs by having Jesus die on the cross, kaput, no resurrection, and attacks the transformation of Jesus’ beliefs by those who came after him.

Problematic in his philosophical debate here is his insistence that it was Jesus’ preaching of the Golden Rule and non-violence that was the sum of God’s message. What’s bothersome here is this is garden-variety Christian apologetics that overlooks the long, long history of the Golden Rule, predating Jesus’ birth by at least a good two thousand years. Why not God shows up as a Babylonian preacher who gets quoted in the Akkadian Councils of Wisdom? Or as the Buddha? There is nothing in The Footprints of God to recommend Jesus for the job save, one suspects, the author’s life in a mostly Christian Western world and his primarily Christian audience. I can understand his decision, yet it’s a weak fit with history.

Even worse than this warm and fuzzy for Iles’ mostly Christian readers is that this isn’t really necessary for the book. The Footprints of God is about how man goes too far in his pursuit of immortality and how that’s kind of a good thing because this evolution is ultimately about leaving your fleshly body. To try to put human being’s minds into computers is par for the course and just another step along the way of bringing consciousness to the universe. There are warnings about doing it right; having an ethicist on board is certainly helpful, but there's nothing in the book that makes the religious angle strictly necessary.

David has these religious visions because of his high-intensity MRI scans, yet these same scans had no side effects when they were tested on various animals. The reasoning given for that is that human brains have activity on the quantum level and animal minds do not. That’s just scientific hooey to try and slip a rationalistic soul into Iles’ characters. I defy any scientifically minded person to defend an argument in which somehow our brains differ from chimpanzees, not structurally in lobes and in synapses, but on a subatomic level. And I defy anyone to create a logically cohesive argument that animals lack consciousness, as Iles’ book claims.

Yet despite these flaws, Iles tells a compelling thriller. Certainly the characters aren’t as fully developed as they might be in a subdued domestic novel of quiet desperation, but then domestic novels rarely have self-aware super-computers intent on nuking Washington, D.C. Readers of thrillers understand that with everything else that goes into the novel, and with the genre’s typically fast pace, there is less time to spend on reflections of one’s childhood and subtle vignettes that probe psychologically. I’ve never worried myself unduly over what Hercule Poirot’s childhood was like and I don’t want Iles to belabor the point here. The scientific and philosophical gripes I’ve listed above don’t detract from that exciting aspect of his writing and, to many readers who overlook the inconsistencies, they’re probably what make the book even more deliciously exciting.

The reader of the book, Dick Hill, is described on the audiobook’s jacket as having been named “one of the industry’s Golden Voices by AudioFile Magazine.” He is certainly a brilliant reader, creating flawless southern and New England accents, subtly shading each character’s vocal inflections so as to make easily and quickly identifiable who is speaking. The man is perhaps the single best reader of any audiobook I have listened to and he made the book doubly enjoyable with his warm voice. I’d be more willing to listen to a book I might have passed over if I find that he’s the reader.

As an audio program, however, there are far too many tracks — not that it makes any difference, better too many than not enough. But 98 tracks on a 74-minute disc seems a bit excessive. The average track length ends up being forty-five seconds long. This strikes me as silly. I know I’ve griped about long singled tracked discs before, but as an answer, this is just going too far.

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