Deep Past by Eugene Linden (2019)

deep-past-800Cover blurb

If nature could invent intelligence of our scale in a blink of geologic time, who’s to say it hasn’t been done before…

A routine dig in Kazakhstan takes a radical turn for thirty-two-year-old anthropologist Claire Knowland when a stranger turns up at the site with a bizarre find from a remote section of the desolate Kazakh Steppe. Her initial skepticism of this mysterious discovery gives way to a realization that the find will shake the very foundations of our understanding of evolution and intelligence.

Corrupt politics of Kazakhstan force Claire to take reckless chances with the discovery. Among the allies she gathers in her fight to save herself and bring the discovery to light is Sergei Anachev, a brilliant but enigmatic Russian geologist who becomes her unlikely protector even as he deals with his own unknown crisis.

Ultimately, Claire finds herself fighting not just for the discovery and her academic reputation, but for her very life as great power conflict engulfs the unstable region and an unscrupulous oligarch attempts to take advantage of the chaos.

Drawing on Eugene Linden’s celebrated non-fiction investigations into what makes humans different from other species, this international thriller mixes fact and the fantastical, the realities of academic politics, and high stakes geopolitics — engaging the reader every step of the way.

My thoughts

Deep Past, the first nonfiction work by writer Eugene Linden, has something of an identity crisis. The cover blurb makes it sound like a thriller in the vein of Michael Crichton, but readers will instead find a more languid story about the process of scientific discovery. There is little in the way of action or intrigue, and those elements are so hastily resolved that I wonder if the author only included them so a publisher would pick up the manuscript. Rather, Deep Past is a straightforward science fiction novel with an intriguing premise but suffering in focus and pacing.

Deep Past is the story of Claire Knowland, an anthropologist who specializes in studying animal intelligence. As the story opens, Claire is researching elephants when the foundation that funds her work asks her to take over an archeological site in the former Soviet-controlled republic of Kazakhstan. She reluctantly agrees to take the job — she doesn’t have much choice in the matter — but one day opportunity comes knocking in the form of the head of security from a nearby mine. The mine’s geologist, Sergei Anachev, has uncovered the bones of an extinct species of elephant from roughly 7 million years ago, and he was hoping Claire and her team could identify the find. Strangely, the bones are laid out in a way that suggests they were intentionally buried. The skulls also have unusually large craniums. Claire puts two and two together and realizes the fossils likely belonged to a prehistoric species that evolved humanlike intelligence long before humans first evolved. Unfortunately, neither the corrupt Kazakhstan government nor the Russian interests that have a controlling stake in the mine are likely to be thrilled about the discovery as it would jeopardize their business venture if the site were to be protected for scientific research. Claire concocts a plan to smuggle the fossils out of the mine, kicking off a series of events that puts both her professional career and her life in danger.

Deep Past is primarily a book about scientific discovery and the story’s greatest strength is its unromantic look at that process. Science in popular media is often portrayed as a series of “eureka!” moments where a scientist or a small team of scientists make a breakthrough that is soon widely accepted by the scientific community. The truth is the scientific process is intensely political, involving clashing personalities, people protective of their turfs, resistance to unorthodox ideas, and cultural and economic realities that dictate access to resources. The best moments of Deep Past are when Claire is navigating this minefield to get her earth-shattering discovery published and accepted. Sadly, those moments are broken up by elements straight out of a spy novel, such as blackmail, geopolitical intrigue, an assassin-for-hire, and a chess-playing Russian villain. None of these elements play a particularly large role in the overall plot and, again, seem to have been inserted mainly so the publisher could market the book as a thriller. I would have preferred more focus on the scientific mystery at the heart of the novel rather than diluting it with third-rate Tom Clancy material. Also not helping is the fact that the characters are a bit on the bland side, with no memorable personality quirks to flesh them out.

I think most readers’ patience will be sorely tested with Deep Past. Fans of science fiction will be frustrated that more isn’t done with the intriguing premise at the heart of the story. Fans of thrillers will be disappointed in the lack of action and suspense. The novel has a cool idea, but it is marred by poor execution.

Trivia

  • So there is no confusion: Deep Past is a novel about a paleontological discovery. Don’t expect extinct animals to be roaming its pages.
  • Linden has written several nonfiction books about nature and science, including on the topic of animal intelligence. His website is EugeneLinden.com.

Reviews

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