I usually post my book reviews over at my other blog, but given some of Jenny Rohn’s recent posts about integrating real science into a fiction setting, it seemed appropriate to cross-post here. Jenny has some excellent advice that I think would really help the author to rework Coils of the Serpent. (It is currently a Print on Demand book, so a version 2.0 would definitely be possible).
I came across this book through a rather unusual channel – the author, Raymond Clark Lutz, emailed me after reading one of my blog posts and deciding that I reminded him of one of the characters in his new novel (Henry, have you tried this approach yet?). I gathered from his first message that he’d been Googling for blogs with certain key words – DNA, viruses, creationism etc.
My reply was as follows:
“Hi, thanks for getting in touch! I’m not sure yet if I buy that I remind you of a character in your book, but it was a good enough sales pitch to take me to your website, and the excerpt looked good, so it’s now on order at Amazon! It’s not in stock apparently so it might take a while. I’ll put the review up on my blog when I’ve read it.
Congratulations on publishing your novel, and good for you for your very nicely targeted marketing campaign! (I used to work in marketing myself and recognise good targeting when I see it).
Raymond replied that I really did remind him of this character (Shannon), and that he thought I would like his writing more than Dan Brown’s, which deals with similar “Bible vs. Science” subject matter, as he put it.
This was back in February. It took a while for the book to arrive, longer for me to get around to starting it, a while longer before I picked it up and started again having given up the first time, and even longer until I managed to get all the way through it.
Raymond, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. I really wanted to like your book, and it did have some very interesting subject matter. Not only that but you are clearly a good writer who has done lots of research. I hope you find the following review constructive because I think you’re on to a good core idea here (and I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who can actually write and market a novel), but the execution needs a lot of work.
Let’s start with Shannon. She is one of three main characters, and one half of a pair of polar opposites. She is a biotechnology student from a strict Catholic background and an extreme atheist, to the extent that she is unwilling to even look at a bible1.
John, on the other hand, is a committed Christian who starts the book unwilling to believe in the existence of DNA.
The other guy in the inevitable love triangle is Dan, the main character and a dotcom millionaire, whose beliefs fall somewhere between John’s and Shannon’s.
To solve the book’s core mystery – does the bible describe DNA and human heredity? – the three friends have to delve into the nature of DNA, genes, proteins and cells, and the mechanisms of heredity and evolution, not to mention some history and lots of biblical verses and their interpretation. There is a huge amount of information that the readers need to know in order to make sense of the story. The major problem I have with Coils of the Serpent is how this information transfer is handled.
Most chapters in the current version of the book are taken up with massive information dumps. The three friends take it in turns to inform each other, and hence the reader, about big chunks of biology, or theology, or history. The dialogue is therefore stilted and unrealistic. Nobody talks like this in real life: in complete paragraphs, with amazingly detailed information at their finger tips and with every conversation coming across as a lecture.
I think the author realised this, because he made a point of varying the settings in which these lectures take place. The friends meet in a coffee shop, then a university museum (I thought this chapter worked quite well), then a pancake house, then a park, someone’s house, the coffee shop again, and someone else’s house. However the detailed descriptions of the settings and furniture don’t quite compensate for the huge chunks of undigested information that made this book such a long hard slog.
There is also some character background and a secondary storyline, with a bit more action, interspersed with the information dump chapters. This other plot comes as a welcome relief, but its eventual merging with the main storyline into a commando-style raid on a military facility was a bit ridiculous, especially considering the tone and pace of the preceding chapters. (But don’t worry, there a few lecture chapters still to come!).
Like I said, the subject matter was interesting enough to keep me struggling through to the end. Some of the matches between the bible and aspects of biology were a pretty big stretch though. For example, any occurrence of the numbers 3 or 4 in the bible must obviously be a reference to the triplet code that translates DNA sequence into protein sequence, or the 4 constituent bases of DNA, respectively. At one point 7 somethings in the bible (deadly sins maybe? I can’t remember) were matched to 3 + 4 = 7 = intelligent design ZOMG!, and I confess that I rolled my eyes.
With one big exception (see below), the scientific content of the novel was pretty accurate. Despite my lack of familiarity with some of the historical and biblical references that make up the rest of the book, I therefore tended to trust the author’s descriptions of them. But maybe not his interpretation. Yup, you’ll no doubt be shocked to hear that I don’t buy the overall premise: that unnamed intelligent designers inserted coded references to the nature of DNA, sexual reproduction and human heredity into the bible and other religious texts. But you have to admit that it’s an interesting idea for a novel.
Now about that big exception…
(What else would you expect from me?!).
I don’t know if the following reflects the author’s own views2, or if it was included out of necessity to the plot. At one point about half way through the book, Shannon goes to visit one of her professors to be reassured about her belief in evolution as scientific fact. While he tells her that “there is great truth to any concept of evolution”, he also reels off the following points that I found strangely familiar:
- While it is conceivable that RNA molecules could have formed naturally, they would have been too unstable to be the natural precursor of DNA
- “Random mutations can not produce “valid” new protein coding sequences”:http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CB/CB101_2.html
- Natural selection exists only to weed out deleterious mutations, there is no evidence for positive selection
I typed these examples in straight from the book, then headed to the excellent Talk Origins Index to Creationist Claims to look for links. Guess what, all of the above points were in the list, and it only took me about 3 minutes to insert all of those links…
Shannon responds with “Gee, that does seem to be quite startling, completely derailing that part of Darwin’s theory”.
Her Professor reiterates that “There’s a huge misconception by the public about the scientific acceptance of Darwin’s theory. His original theory is not supported by experimental evidence. It sounds good, but it is wrong”.
Alarm bells ringing for anyone else?
In summary, decent idea derailed by poor execution and some inaccurate science.
If you’re interested in reading Coils of the Serpent to form your own opinion, let me know and I’d be happy to send you my copy! (More than one offer will result in a random lottery OR the need for bribery).
1 In contrast, I’ve read parts of it with fascination. I have my own bible, at my parents’ house, a family heirloom; my paternal grandfather’s family brought it with them from Ireland. The inside front cover is full of details of my family tree – names, dates of birth and death – a local tradition apparently. My sister has the equivalent bible from our paternal grandmother’s Irish ancestors. It is Very Cool.
2 I suspect this may be the case! In part because Coils of the Serpent just has to be the cause of this email: “As someone who has purchased books on Christian living or faith fiction from Amazon.ca, you might like to browse our selection of new Christian titles. From the latest in the Miller Brothers’ Codebearers Series, Hunter Brown and the Secret of the Shadow to Francis Chan’s guide to “living crazy for God”, you’ll find fresh thinking about worship, fellowship and church leadership”. It was either that or The God Delusion (still unread by the way, I might read it on the plane to England in December).