August 21, 2010


by Steve Alten
502 pages, Tor Books

Sometimes a giant shark is just a sublimated p*nis extension, by Pat Black

There are shark books, and there are giant shark books. And then there are giant prehistoric shark books.

Any time I feel like having a sneer about Twilight, Sex In The City or Bridget Jones, remembering my own choice of reading material helps me to get over myself. My put-out pout becomes a lop-sided rural banjo player's grin. Giant prehistoric shark books tend to have that effect on me.

That's not to say that Steve Alten's Meg series is obtuse; they're researched to within an inch of their lives, and sometimes dense when it comes to technical, geological or biological details. On top of that, Alten has conviction, the prerequisite for any genre writer or film director. He's been penning these novels for an incredible 13 years now, and I've been with him all the way. Mein gott, that was back in the nineties. When I picked up the first Meg book I was still buying cassette tapes.

The "Meg" in the title, sadly, isn't a giant aquatic version of Pete Griffin's daughter from Family Guy (now there's a Jaws poster pastiche I can get my teeth into), but a Megalodon. The creature has been extinct for upwards of 10,000 years, and the only remains of this cartilaginous nightmare are fossilised teeth. These teeth are bigger than butcher knives, and a Megalodon must have been as big as a jumbo jet. Going by the shape and the sheer bitey horribleness of its gnashers, the creature is reckoned to be an ancestor of the modern day great white shark. But several times bigger, and meaner. Just so you get the picture - just so you gasp at the SHEER SIZE - the prologue to the original Meg features a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing a bleating hadrosaur into the surf during Spring Break Cretacious Period, only to find itself in a world of foamy bloody trouble as a Megalodon snaps it up like it was the last Scotch egg at a finger buffet.

This is the kind of awesomeness that permeates the series. I do like people who think big.

Of course, Megalodons aren't really extinct in Alten's modern world, they're merely lurking in deep places like the Mariana Trench in the Pacific, waiting for human ingenuity/stupidity to dredge them up from the depths so they can go a-monstering in the modern seas. Which they do, much and often.

Jonas Taylor is the hero of these books, a former Navy submarine pilot who got the collywobbles after seeing a Meg on a mission one time. He says they're there, they say he's crazy, and oops, what do you know, he was right. Go through a few hundred pages of relentless shark carnage and here we are, at Hell's Aquarium, the fourth entry in the series. Jonas is helping to run a giant public aquarium at the Tanaka Institute, featuring the series' main villain, Angel, a super-sized female Megalodon, and her brood of cannibalistic offspring. These monster fishies do not like being cooped up, and constantly attempt to breach the wall and get out to sea. Things Go Wrong almost from the off when a couple of students get swept out into the lagoon by a freak wave during a display. Munchity crunchity. Alten started the last Meg book, Primal Waters, almost the same way, but no matter.

With legal problems lurking for the Institute (perhaps a dig at the true sharks of this world), Jonas and his best mate, James "Mac" Mackriedes, get an offer from some very rich people in Dubai to take some of the pesky sharks off their hands for installation at a new aquarium in the Middle East. But it turns out that the Arabs have got bigger fish to fry, after the discovery of a secret underwater sea which has been bubbling away to itself in the Pacific for millions of years. This "lost world" scenario means that, as well as our friends the Megalodons, other seagoing prehistoric creatures have survived.

We're talking dinosaurs, here. Great big ones, like Liopleurodon and Kronosaurus and a few others besides. If you've got any little boys in your life, you should Google these beasts for them - they will be swept up by the sheer monsterness, as I was. The Arabs want these creatures in their nightmare menagerie, too, and are mounting a mission to try and capture a few. The fools!

Jonas Taylor's son, David, no mean submarine pilot himself, is recruited by the Middle Eastern group for a summer, ostensibly to train several new recruits in his art. Upon meeting these supporting characters, you know they're not long for this printed world. They may as well be wearing red shirts. With a Megalodon in a chef's hat sprinkling a finful of salt and pepper over them. There's a love interest too, though, and soon David is plunged into the adventure of a lifetime, while his father manages sharkish problems of his own back at the Tanaka Institute.

It's rollocking stuff, with great monster mashing scenes, lashings of utter carnage, daring rescues and last-minute escapes. Just when you think it couldn't get any better, there's a battle between a Liopleurodon and a Meg, something that had me grinning like the aforementioned loon and perhaps drooling a little bit, too. It's like those magical old Harryhausen movies where one big monster appears, stage right... then another one appears, stage left... they roar at each for a bit, they circle... and then... FIGHT!

Alten doesn't pull his punches politically - there's a surprisingly frank discussion about how many so-called western principles are set aside when it comes to chasing money from oil-rich states whose ideas of equality and human rights aren't the best. A big supporter of the US armed forces, Alten also examines the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder in some of the former servicemen who have been recruited to pilot the monster-capturing submersibles. Guess they thought this would be an easier gig than Afghanistan. Guess again.

Alten's research is meticulous almost to the point of being overpowering - the exact science of just how such creatures could have survived (the great reptiles evolve gills, so as to avoid going to the surface to breathe, apparently), and how their environment changed over the millennia, is gone over in exhausting detail. It would have been easy for Alten to say, "Look, there's a giant shark!" and have his audience simply swallow the concept hook, line and sinker. But he is aiming for believability at all times, even in a book about giant prehistoric sharks.

It's monster fun, knockaround stuff and there's never a dull page. Absolutely perfect beach reading.

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