Ted Kosmatka’s Prophet of Bones takes place in a world where absolutely everybody knows that Darwin was wrong, and the world is only 5,800 years old. Until one researcher happens on an archeological miracle: an early hominid who used tools, and clearly diverged from humans longer ago. And then people start turning up dead.
Top image: Homo Floresiensis via Ryan Sonma/Flickr
Kosmatka has won a lot of attention for his short stories and his novel The Games, as well as his work at Valve on games like Portal 2, as well as a Portal 2 tie-in comic. But before all that, he was a laboratory worker for 10 years — and a lot of the best parts of Prophet of Bones are the detailed, nitty-gritty descriptions of assays and analysis — this is the rare thriller that contains a reference list of scientific papers in the back. All of this detail is somewhat educational, but also provides a much-needed sense of reality to the otherwise conventional story of someone who discovers a secret that bad people will kill to keep hidden.
The other selling point of Prophet of Bones, of course, is the alternate world where it takes place. It’s just like ours, except that everybody agrees that Adam and Eve were the first humans, 5,8000 years ago, and all other species came from the Garden of Eden at the same time. Kosmatka give us some great glimpses into how scientists would theorize about the nature of genetics, and biology generally, in such a world.
The book’s main character, Paul Carlsson, is a Hapa science geek whose psychotic father beats him when he experiments on selective breeding of mice as a child. As an adult, he dips into forbidden books about long-discredited evolutionary theories, and also works as a genetic “sampler” of bones and other materials. Which leads to him being hired to work on a mysterious dig in Flores, Indonesia, where some tiny hominids have just been found — let’s call them homo floresiensis.
It’s provocative to imagine a world with Google, and gene sequencing, and carbon dating, in which scientists nevertheless all agree that the world is just short of six millennia old. Some of the most fascinating parts of the book occur when Kosmatka tries to square this circle and show how this cognitive dissonance could be possible. There’s one eyebrow-raising bit where one of the scientists in the book asserts that if the world was ever proved to be more than 5,800 years old, all religion would instantly cease to exist.
And yet, it’s sort of odd that we never meet any religious people in the book. Everybody’s religious, as far as that goes, but there’s not even a glimpse of the ecclesiastical officials who keep the world so tightly in their grip. We hear, occasionally, that the churches are all-powerful and politicians are all in their pocket — but this crucial piece of the world-building is left off-screen. None of the characters we meet in the book, except for one lunatic in the opening pages, ever acts as though he or she believes in any religious precepts. It’s kind of odd.
And meanwhile, the book quickly settles into being sort of a standard-issue thriller, in which Paul Carlsson gets drawn deeper and deeper into discovering a conspiracy that flies in the face of everything he’s always been taught. There are gunplay and car chases, in more or less the order you’d expect them to happen.
Eventually, we learn that there’s a lot more going on here than just the coverup of some bones that could disprove the unshakable orthodoxy of Young Earth Creationism — there’s a whole other evil conspiracy going on, involving unholy experiments, which I won’t give away. (Oh, and before anybody else says anything — the headline of this article says Creationism, rather than Young Earth Creationism, purely because of length constraints. I recognise the latter is a subset of the former.)
Prophet of Bones contains some incredibly tantalising glimpses of hard science in a world constrained by theological received truth, and the detailed discussions of scientific methodology just add to the fascination. There are some pretty interesting ideas brought up, too, abut what happens to us when we put humans at the centre of the universe and the top of the family tree. Paul’s own troubled parentage underscores the questions about inheritance and identity in the centre of this book.
But in the end, the most interesting ideas get subsumed somewhat by the formal requirements of a fairly conventional thriller, and the only resolution we get is of the basic plot kind, rather than anything more revelatory.