MIXING SCIENCE, MURDER AND ESPIONAGE, Libby McGugan’s debut novel “The Eidolon” delivers two hooks I cannot resist: the atom smasher, and evidence of a human afterlife. Add strangelets, stigmery and WIMPS (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles), let the characters marvel at swarm intelligence in bees, and I can emphatically state that this is no run-of-the-mill thriller.
The opening scene is exquisitely cold, stark and beautiful. Snow swirls around two men as they near the top of Mt. Everest. The prose is riveting:
I peer up at the faceless ascent and it stares back at me, cold, unmerciful. The fear grips me for a moment. The kind of fear I’ve read about, when men who undertake this pilgrimage … realize they’re nobody to the mountain; that it doesn’t care if they live or die … The wind is wailing like a tortured cat … There’s a point when pride needs to step aside for instinct, and it’s right here.
Huddled in a hole in the snow, Robert takes the reader back in time. Through flashbacks we meet an earlier Robert on his way to work, where he’s about to verify his earth-shaking discoveries at the Dark Matter research lab. Like the storm that would keep him from the top of Mt. Everest, a shocking, sudden closing of the lab halts his life’s work. Dazed and demoralized, he comes home to find his live-in girlfriend talking to her sister’s ghost. Cora always was a New Age mystic sort of gal, but this is more juju than a recently fired physicist can take. Then again, his skepticism is more than a positive thinker like Cora can take, so she leaves him.
Still shivering in the snow, Robert suddenly senses the presence of another sentient being on the mountain. The scene is eerie and suspenseful, and plot spoilers keep me from saying more, but when Robert is safely home from Everest, the ghost of Cora’s sister starts appearing to him, too. He dismisses it as a stress-induced delusion and retreats to his childhood home in Scotland, but instead of shaking his gloom, he starts seeing more dead people.
Jobless and no longer sure of his sanity, Robert is ripe for the recruiting efforts of a scary-mysterious businessman who offers him one hundred thousand pounds for a week’s work. The catch? Victor Amos wants Robert to sabotage the famous, fabulous, hugely expensive and important Large Hadron Collider. Amos and his super-secret global guardians are on a mission to protect humanity from its own curiosity. They have compelling “evidence” that CERN’s next round of experiments could destroy the world, and only Robert can stop them. He remains skeptical until Amos pulls the last rabbit from his hat, a compelling surprise that induces Robert to accept the job.
The good guy is going to smash the atom smasher? No! In the novel, as in real life, the LHC took 20 years and ten billion dollars to build, with 10,000 scientists from more than 100 countries working in collaboration at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
How could a physicist, however discouraged or depressed he may be, swallow the alarmist notion that the atom smasher might annihilate us? Yes, Robert is only fiction, but I expect him to think like a real-life physicist, namely Don Lincoln of Fermilab near Chicago. Lincoln said he’d be “wiggling like a puppy … If they form, we can learn something deep and insightful and really central to our understanding of how the universe came into existence.” (Nautilus, “Outsmarting the CERNageddon,” August 8, 2103, Issue 4.)
Robert Strong passes the ultimate test of how an author can win me over: make me argue with her characters as if they’re real people. The more I shake my fist at Robert, the more I realize McGugan has tricked me into getting lost in a world of her own creation. This is why I read, after all: to escape my own world and explore new ones.
For all my rage at Robert, the reward is Casimir, the bee-keeping, star-gazing neighbor who has a vast amount of knowledge about the cosmos in spite of no money for a university education. “The idea of finding dark matter always intrigued him. A hunch, he said, that it would change everything.” Every action and word from Casimir seems authentic and I can’t help but love the guy and want way more of him than the novel can give. Minor characters who shine like he does often end up with spin-off shows on TV or in sequels. (Hint, hint!)
More intriguing than strangelets are the dead people Robert meets after infiltrates CERN. Yes, his social circle fills with dead people, or people who claim to be ghosts. They call themselves ‘eidolon’-ancient Greek for apparition, a spirit-image of a living or dead person. Robert can shake hands with the eidolon and drink with them, while most people can’t see them at all. One is angry and in denial about being recently murdered; another is completely unaware of being dead. It’s the kind of New Age juju that divided Robert and Cora, but now our cynical physicist is joining the juju. I love the irony of that.
The most delightful irony is that Robert the skeptic, who scoffed at poor, bereft Cora and her sister’s ghost, ends up seeing far more of that sort of “impossible” stuff. Robert the cool, objective scientis,t is one of earth’s most mystical of mystics, if he ever gets past his denial.
Every character is real and vivid. I love the hapless Danny, who plans the Everest trip, and Robert’s mother, and their head-shaking comments about Danny.
The chilling, nebulous narrator of the prologue falls silent after page one, and I have no doubt he/she/it will speak again in sequels to “The Eidolon.” I want the whole story NOW.
McGugan is so busy with other awesome enterprises, we may be waiting some time for the two sequels. She’s a violinist, a mountain climber, and an emergency physician. She’s worked field hospitals in the desert with the Flying Doctors service; for that, I’ll forgive plot holes, black holes and whatever lurks between the gaps.
Not that the “plot holes” ever mattered much. If we didn’t accept a few questionable premises, we wouldn’t get to read a gripping story like The Eidolon. If “The Eidolon” were just a thriller, I’d have put it out of my mind by now. Months later, I’m still thinking about this novel. I can’t undo the review the Perihelion published in December 2013, but here, I will confess I get snarky and judgmental when reading of “evidence” of an afterlife. In my January 2014 review in Perihelion of Isaac Hooke’s “The Forever Gate,” I grumbled again about physics supposedly proving there’s an afterlife–“Death is just a state of mind. Everything that can possibly happen is occurring at some point across multiverses, and this somehow means death cannot exist in any real sense, either.” Libby tells me that’s what she’s driving at with The Eidolon. Of course I want to believe our souls/sentience/self awareness can survive death of the body, but if it does, not enough people ever get to see ghosts. Not enough to convince me my own sister is alive and aware, somewhere.
As a book reviewer, it occurs to me I have been over-reacting to authors positing the notion that there really is life after death. Let it be so! And let me set aside my outrage and indignation when that which happens in fiction never happens to me in real life.
While Science Fiction addicts might obsess over strangelets, quarks and CERNagddon, thriller fans are less likely to question Robert’s conviction that Cern must be destroyed. Via email, Libby McGugan has corrected my misunderstanding that Robert gives credence to fears that the atom smasher may create black holes. His concern is the strangelets and the ‘Ice nine’-like reaction, which to this day is a concern for some scientists. (I pretended to understand the Ice Nine thing to spare her trying to explain it to a physics flunk-out.)
The novel is well crafted, tautly constructed, strong, and intelligent. It’s not easy to define, but the more I read books lacking in brain power, the more I love it when I find it: a sense that the author is alert, thoughtful, erudite, and engaged. I’m partial to stories packed full of science and history, imagination, and ideas. My favorite stories, more and more, are written by scientists and doctors, and they are blessed with storytelling skills as well as the high IQ to pass college-level physics and Organic Chemistry.
Anyone who loves physics (and even those who don’t) will find much to love in The Eidolon. I’m eager to see Robert doing battle in a dark Edinburgh alley with a Revenant. What’s a Revenant? When Book Two comes out, you’ll know more than you ever wanted to about these spectral horrors.
Ooooh! Should I take back what I said about wanting an afterlife?
Libby McGugan was born 1972 in Airdrie, a small town east of Glasgow in Scotland, to a Catholic mother and a Protestant-turned-atheist father, who loved science. She enjoyed a mixed diet of quantum physics, spiritual instinct, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Her ambition was to grow up and join the Rebel alliance in a Galaxy Far, Far away. Instead she went to Glasgow University and studied medicine.
As an emergency physician, she has worked in Scotland, in Australia with the Flying Doctors service, and in a field hospital in the desert. She loves traveling and the diversity that is the way different people see the world, and has been trekking in the Himalaya of Bhutan, backpacking in Chile, USA and Borneo and diving in Cairns.