Altar of Eden by James Rollins

This is a very disturbing book on any number of levels.  It’s maybe science fiction, maybe adventure, and a well-written combination of the two genres.  But it manages to create images and ideas that can keep you up at night.

The hero of the story is Dr. Lorna Pope, a veterinarian who is responsible for a laboratory in Louisiana that preserves genetic material of rare species, mostly to prevent their becoming altogether extinct, but also to help the zoos of the world to maintain their specimens.  As we soon learn, she is genuinely compassionate, courageous and resourceful, all of which she will need in the crisis ahead.

A boat runs aground in a storm, and the animal specimens on board are strange, which prompts Jack Menard of the Border Patrol to call Dr. Pope to help them track and capture the ones that have escaped into the bayou.  In the process, she is confronted with her history with Jack and his family, and why the Menards all hate her so much.

As Dr. Pope begins to answer the question of why these animals are so strange, a horrible secret comes to the surface.  A secret project so menacing that those who run it cannot allow anyone to survive who discover what they are up to.  So Jack and Lorna must die, of course.

Several thorny ethical questions are embedded in this story.  The one that was especially disturbing to me was the use of major weaponry on all sides.  We’ve been talking about assault weapons and such lately, and this story depicts good guys with weapons going head to head with bad guys with weapons.  The story also unfolds in such a way that leaving the fire power to the authorities (even though Jack is an authority himself) won’t work.  People come out of the bayou with major firepower and the skill to use it, and we cannot flinch at the fact that they have these weapons because they are on the side of the good people in the story.  But of course really rotten people also have guns.  Indeed, one of the most rotten is the son of the local sheriff.

OK, this is fiction, and it’s quite possible nothing like this would ever happen.  But we do have to ask whether there are people who do not wear badges who should nevertheless be trusted with assault rifles, and whether there are people who have badges who should not.  It seems nothing is simple.  Nothing.

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.