Filler content with extra hype

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #28:-

DECIPHER
Stel Pavlou
Simon & Schuster hb, 616pp, £12.99

It is the year 2012 and something’s gone wrong with the sun. Scientists are worried that unprecedented solar flare activity could be the prelude to the big one, a cosmic event with fatal consequences for mankind. Meanwhile, beneath the ice of Antarctica, geologists have discovered a hidden city that could be lost Atlantis, and other ancient sites around the globe are starting to act in ways previously thought impossible. It appears that the key to the present danger is hidden in the past. The USA assembles a team of scientists and military to investigate Atlantis, but the Chinese have other ideas and are already there in force. We’re under starter’s orders in the race to save the world, or at least to blow it all up before Mother Nature saves us the bother.

Decipher came with more publicity material than any book I’ve ever received to review, most of it having to do with the rags to riches story of author Pavlou, who after years working in Threshers by day and writing by night sold both this novel and a film script to Hollywood in the same fortnight. There was even a poster to hang on my bedroom wall. Not.

As someone naturally wary of hype I came to the book with low expectations. The sleeve notes mention Michael Crichton, but the plot synopsis suggests the sort of awfulness you get from Clive Cussler. In the event I was pleasantly surprised. To name drop a couple more worthies, Decipher reads like a cross between Greg Egan and Indiana Jones, and is the kind of book that in a few years’ time will probably (a) be gutted by a hired gun scriptwriter and (b) test to destruction the sfx ingenuity and budget of some Hollywood studio.

Central to the novel is the idea of an advanced civilisation that preceded our own but was lost, surviving only in legend and folklore, yet still found a way to bequeath its technology to present day man. Pavlou does a fine job of making this pill easy to swallow, padding it out with a compelling wealth of factual detail. On every page he throws off intriguing ideas about linguistics, mythology, geology, nuclear physics etc. I’m not qualified to judge the accuracy of this, but certainly the author makes it sound plausible, and a four-page bibliography suggests that he has done his homework and is extrapolating from known fact rather than just pulling stuff out of thin air.

The science is seamlessly woven into an exhilarating adventure story, one that never lets up the pace for a minute and has enough twists and turns to make the most seasoned action fan feel slightly dizzy. The characters are fully rounded and believable, aside from the ability of every single one of them to quote chapter and verse from the Book of Revelations. The rivalries within the group, between the scientists and the military men, who refreshingly don’t want to blow everything up at the drop of a hat, between the different areas of science itself, all help to raise the tension that little bit more. And of course there’s the obligatory love match to add spice. It ain’t great literature, but it is an exciting story well told.

I’m still wary of hype, but in this instance Pavlou more than justifies the claims being made on his behalf.

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