Prophet of Bones

by Ted Kosmatka

(very good; top 50% of SciThri)

Publication date: April 2, 2013
Category: science fiction thriller; science thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):


Summary (from the publisher):

Paul Carlson, a brilliant young scientist, is summoned from his laboratory job to the remote Indonesian island of Flores to collect DNA samples from the ancient bones of a strange, new species of tool user unearthed by an archaeological dig. The questions the find raises seem to cast doubt on the very foundations of modern science, which has proven the world to be only 5,800 years old, but before Paul can fully grapple with the implications of his find, the dig is violently shut down by paramilitaries.

Paul flees with two of his friends, yet within days one has vanished and the other is murdered in an attack that costs Paul an eye, and very nearly his life. Back in America, Paul tries to resume the comfortable life he left behind, but he can’t cast the questions raised by the dig from his mind. Paul begins to piece together a puzzle which seems to threaten the very fabric of society, but world’s governments and Martial Johansson, the eccentric billionaire who financed Paul’s dig, will stop at nothing to silence him.

ScienceThrillers Review:

Prophet of Bones is a cool, brainy science thriller with one of the most intriguing SciFi plot premises I’ve seen in a while.  In Ted Kosmatka’s novel, the Earth is exactly like it is in the real world–same history, same intellectual heroes and writers of the past, same fossils in the ground–except radiometric dating has definitively proved that the planet is less than 6,000 years old.

In other words, in this alternate reality the creationists have been proved right, and the scientific establishment has had to come up with ways of interpreting the scientific record that are consistent with the known age of the world.  (Species extinction is accepted as fact.)

The story follows scientist Paul Carlsson from his inquisitive youth with a violent genius father to the beginning of his career as an expert in bones, especially bones from human-like species. The science of digging up, studying and categorizing bones seems ordinary enough, and in this alternate world DNA sequencing and comparative molecular genomics exist and are making their mark. What’s strange is how communication among scientists has been institutionally stifled. Specifically, information is compartmentalized. Those who dig up the bones are not allowed to know what DNA is extracted, and those who extract and sequence the DNA are not given access to the computer-based interpretation of what the sequences mean. In this world, some classic books of science are banned.

I loved this set-up, suggesting to me the possibility of a grand conspiracy related to the “known” age of the planet and humanity’s status as a unique creation of God, created at a single point in time. In his youth, Paul experiments with evolution in mice. How does evolution fit into this paradigm?

Paul is invited / sent to a dig on the remote Indonesian island of Flores where some truly remarkable bones have been uncovered. Meanwhile, an undefined sinister force or forces are at work. Action ensues. Paul is set on a path that puts his native curiosity and clarity of thought in opposition to what is safe and comfortable. Of course, our hero chooses to pursue the truth.

Prophet of Bones is full of excellent writing. Flashes of literary excellence appear in the text: “a green ribbon of jungle thrust out of blue water, a single bead in the rosary of islands…”  “…an old industrial park. A property that used to produce iron and steel and good pensions.”   “Bone is resistant to the world’s exigencies. People less so.”

Some of the science is also excellent. For example, at the beginning of chapter 10 there is a description of bone metabolism that is beautiful to read and also accurate.

So what’s the problem?

I finished reading Prophet of Bones over a week ago and have put off writing my review because I was torn about what to say. My dilemma in a nutshell: from the first pages, I totally fell in love with this book. I was sucked in, enjoyed reading the novel, felt the tension, didn’t know where the plot was headed, and had great expectations for how the author would pull together the intellectual aspects. I was primed to give one of my rare 5-star reviews.  Until the end.

For a thriller, I suppose the ending is fine: action-packed climax, plenty of danger and narrow escapes, a love interest, monsters, bad guys, chases, etc.  I didn’t like the way our hero survives preposterous injuries, but this is a common (if annoying) feature of many thrillers. What made the ending truly disappointing for me was the author’s failure to tie up the intellectual threads that had been so brilliantly woven into the story. I’m going to avoid spoilers here so I must keep my comments a little vague. I expected a “bigger” ending, one that would bring together the mystery of the Flores bones, the supposedly solid radiometric dating evidence, the vested political and religious interests in the status quo. Instead, I got an isolated cartoon villain and a freak of nature that contributes nothing to the big questions of evolution, creationism, and the human soul.

Maybe the author thought he had brought his big themes together in the end. Maybe if I read the book again I’d “get” it. But as it was, I feel I have unanswered questions and I don’t really know what Paul is going to do or how his revelations will change the world.

Because of the obvious skill and smarts of this author, I look forward to reading more by Ted Kosmatka in hopes that he will bring it all the way to the finish line next time.

Unusual words: Wallace Line; Flores man; hobbit; cladogram; calcium phosphate; bone resorption; australopithecine; Neanderthal; hominid; Punnett square

FCC disclaimer: An advance reader copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

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