Book review: Coils of the Serpent

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).
Good luck!”
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:

  • “Random mutations can not produce “valid” new protein coding sequences”:

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, 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).

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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16 Responses to Book review: Coils of the Serpent

  1. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Cath, thanks for the really interesting review. I’ll be talking about infodumps in my next lablit blog but – oy vey, I would have thought that everyone knew this one by now.
    In the spirit of strongly believing that any fiction author has a right to using the medium to advance his or her agenda, no matter how misguided, hats off to the author for having the cheek to try to skewer evolution in this way. A pity he didn’t buy even a basic book on the common pitfalls of the craft of fiction, though!

  2. Cath Ennis says:

    Cheers Jenny!
    This review took me a few days to write, and I read Henry’s list of common mistakes in science fiction writing about halfway through the process. I almost linked to it to point out exactly how many of the errors this book included, but I thought I was probably being mean enough as it was!

  3. Jennifer Rohn says:

    There is no excuse for any writer not to know the basics. If they can’t afford a how-to book (and there are a number of good ones), then the internet is full of lots of free advice.

  4. Henry Gee says:

    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 don’t think I’d dare, especially as I have the usual rubric about the resemblances between characters in the book and people in the real world being coincidental.
    I’m a perpretrator victim of many of the solecisms in the Turkey City Lexicon, and the one I can’t seem to shake off is ‘Show Don’t Tell’. Perhaps, in my next novel, which is all about a biologist from Vancouver who likes canoeing …

  5. Cath Ennis says:

    Nothing like me at all, I like kayaking 😉

  6. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Ha ha ha!
    Henry, just get someone to read your stuff and circle all the S-N-Ts. Electroshock optional. After a while you’ll stop doing it!

  7. Henry Gee says:

    Henry, just get someone to read your stuff and circle all the S-N-Ts
    You’ve got the job, Jenny. Seriously. Somehow I don’t ‘get’ SNT, and I need someone to show me, in detail.

  8. Jennifer Rohn says:

    It’s already on the list, honey.

  9. Cath Ennis says:

    Henry, I’m only halfway through By The Sea, but it is already much much better than Coils of the Serpent. I don’t think you need to worry too much.

  10. Henry Gee says:

    You haven’t got to the big info-dump, then, just after the cliff-hanger sequence borrowed from North By Northwest, where one of the protagonists reads the first three chapters of The Origin of Species to a villain who is hanging on to the lighthouse by her fingernails?

  11. Richard P. Grant says:

    Give the bloody plot away, why dontcha?
    Not ordering it now. sniff

  12. James Aach says:

    I feel for any fiction author trying to make a go of it with a book heavy on science (or in my own case, technology). You’ve outlined the info dump pitfall well. Having done some of this type of e-marketing myself, I’d say the author should feel very pleased that you not only responded, but then also purchased the book and took the time to write a review and post it – even if it wasn’t the type of review he was hoping for. Reading a book is a serious time commitment.

  13. Cath Ennis says:

    Thanks James! I hope the author is pleased rather than upset with my review…
    Henry, I definitely haven’t got that far yet 😉 I’m more interested in the mysteries of the corridor with the bear and tapestries…
    BTW did you know that you can download the entire Origin of Species and/or Voyage of the Beagle onto your iPhone? 99 cents each. I don’t like reading on screen but I’m tempted for the sheer geekery.

  14. Raymond Lutz says:

    Cath, I still think you match the personality of Shannon in the book, and I appreciate your review, despite the critical remarks about how well the story flows. Indeed, I am the author, and I came across your review via a Google alert for the name of the book.
    Attempting to get a great deal of technical information in a book that people will also read is a challenge. It is one thing to point out that the people don’t talk that way (no kidding… it is a rare day indeed when people have in-depth conversations, esp. about “taboo” topics such as politics and religion) and quite another to take care of the informational requirements of the story while not taking forever to complete the task.
    Initially, I attempted to write it as nonfiction but realized that nonfiction is a bit limiting because you only get to provide the point of view of one character — one opinion of an “expert.” By creating a fictional world, it is possible to try to see the same information from several points of view, and therefore appeal to different readers, and even to present a point of view that I really don’t possess.
    But the problem with moving to fiction is that people have the expectation that very little pure information will be presented, instead relying on the story to present it.
    The museum scene was a good example of an enhancement from having the same friends just sit around do info dumps. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to discuss biblical passages with the same method. If there was a good way to do that with some more active scene, it would be a great way to rework the volume. (If you have concrete ideas of how to improve it and still get the job done, I am certainly open to those ideas…)
    Then again, I think the scene at Edgar’s house with the slide projector and famous artwork was a reasonable attempt to make the scene more active.
    I stand by most if not all of the technical content of the book, with the understanding that it is quite difficult to be on top of everything. And, contrary to comment snipes, I have even read Stephen J. Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory from cover to cover (1300 pages) so to say that it is too bad that I didn’t review the basics on evolution is not true.
    On the question of evolution, it is indeed true that there are still unresolved details, esp. if you accept the larger definition which includes the question of origins (science tends to omit that question from the definition of the term “evolution” and this only adds to the overall confusion.) I’ve written a longer explanation on this point, (as you are not the first to point out that issue) and it can be found here
    specifically the entry entitled “Evolution” is misunderstood, but you may find the other entries interesting as well.
    I want to thank you for taking your time to read through the book and attend to the ideas and questions, as I worked on this book on and off, and including my research, for nearly ten years. While I am not a creationist, I am also aware that our knowledge is incomplete regarding how life sprang forth on this planet and eventually became complex enough such that modern evolutionary theory could become active.
    From my reading, especially John Maynard Smith’s The Major Transitions In Evolution, there indeed are still many unsettled questions and incomplete theories about how life got started here. The conclusion reached in the scene with the fictional Dr. Houserman is only that not everything is settled. I think that is still true despite your links that may seem to imply that those claims are somehow fully refuted.
    No scientist claims that the exact set of steps is understood in terms of how life got started, and even the details in terms of why and how species develop in jumps. It is unfortunately a weakness in the discussion for the science community to assert that this is all understood when it is not, allowing the creationists and IDists to work their way into that crack of speculation. There is nothing wrong with the concept that science does not understand everything, that accepted theories of today may not be true, and that the details of Darwin’s original theory have undergone some revision.
    With all that said, I am extremely happy to hear that you got all the way through Coils, as I have to admit I’ve started many a book that I tired of long before that. I did work hard to accelerate the pace of the action toward the end, despite being wholly contrived. However, I must insist that the concept of the PITY Ranch is not too far off the mark. I have been working for quite some time in opposition to a paramilitary training camp near where I live proposed by Blackwater Worldwide The intent in Coils in this section was to exemplify the most coercive aspects of religion and the danger to our society. So although you find this part of the novel a bit ridiculous, I assert it is a necessary component to illustrate those components of religion used by those in power today to stay in power.
    Again, I sincerely appreciate your investment in this work, although I’m a bit put out by the fact that you are willing to give your copy away. I thought you’d place it on your shelf along side the copy of Darwin’s work and perhaps keep it for many future readings!! Oh well.
    –Raymond Lutz

  15. Cath Ennis says:

    Hi Raymond – thanks for stopping by, and sorry for the delay in replying!
    It’s interesting that you originally conceived the book as non-fiction, because it reminded me in a way of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail – the non-fictional counterpart of the much, much more lightweight Da Vinci Code. I think your book might stand up better as non-fiction (our contrasting views on evolution and ID not withstanding!) – which isn’t to say that you couldn’t also write a more action-focused, lightweight fictional version based on the same material. I appreciate that that would take a HUGE rewrite though.
    As for suggestions for reworking it in its current form – I’m sorry, but you’re asking the wrong person. I haven’t written a single word of fiction since leaving high school English requirements behind 15 years ago! There are lots of people on here who would be much better sources of advice – you can link through to Jenny’s and Henry’s blogs from this comments thread, for a start.
    Finally, friends who read my blog AND know me in real life might disagree, but the personality I display on my blogs overlaps with, but is not 100% representative of, my actual real-life personality. Perhaps you feel that Shannon is a decent match for my online personality – I would still disagree – but please don’t disagree with me when I say that my real-life personality is not as good a match to your fictional character as you seem to think it is! That’s just weird… 😉

  16. Raymond Lutz says:

    Hi Cath:
    Sorry it has taken be a while to get to this. I ended up running for political office and haven’t had time to devote to anything else for a while, plus I am fighting Blackwater, the private mercenary firm in our area.
    Regarding your comment that “he reels off the following points that I found strangely familiar:” (and then naming Inadequate fossil record, no transitional forms, etc) I want to refer you to the book by Eugene M. McCarthy, Ph.D. in Genetics, called Macroevolution — The origin of new life forms that you can read in its entirety on the web site (and read in your blackberry for sheer geekery, like I did.)
    I quote one passage in Chapter 6:

    The Missing Links are Still Missing.
    Nevertheless, Darwin continued to express faith that his “gaps” would eventually be filled by the work of future generations of paleontologists. Several of those future generations are now past, but the evidence gathered during the interim has only strengthened the view that the pattern seen by Cuvier is indeed typical, and that cases are rare in which one fossil type changes gradually into another. Milner (1993: 199) summarizes the glaring problem with Darwin’s argument: “Another century of fossil discoveries, he believed, would fill in the picture. In fact, many transitional forms have since come to light, but they are still comparatively rare.” More specifically, there seem to be very few examples of gradual macroevolution as Darwin described it. That is, of a single type gradually changing over evolutionary time until it becomes a new, morphologically distinct type. If there are any such cases, then they are at best very rare. Indeed, paleontologists Stephen Stanley and Derek Ager (1979) state that “the known fossil record fails to document a single example.” Instead, Stanley (1981) says, there is a very marked tendency for each fossil form to appear abruptly, remain stable in form for long periods of time thereafter, and then to go extinct:
    “The record now reveals that species typically survive for a hundred thousand generations, or even a million or more, without evolving very much. We seem forced to conclude that most evolution takes place rapidly … After their origins, most species undergo little evolution before becoming extinct.”

    I know you’ll enjoy that book, and I much appreciated it myself. (You too, Jennifer!) I’m not a creationist, and I don’t really have an answer for the patterns I find in the biblical texts, but I think that the evolutionary professionals should be honest about the evidence before them and stop saying everything is settled. It only provides a crack where creationists can drive in a wedge.
    The reality is that we really don’t know all the details and I don’t mind saying that.
    –Raymond Lutz
    P.S. Shannon is just a fictional character, so who knows what she is really like?! (Plus I don’t know you at all, so my claim was based on nothing but your musings on your site.)

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