Our book today is Steve Alten’s 1997 classic Meg, and it’s a salient reminder that some modern-day classics sneak up on us, unfolding their brilliance only gradually, like a delicate lotus blossom. Those of us who’ve been fans of giant-killer-shark novels from the beginning (that beginning being, of course, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, not Peter Benchley’s otherwise-excellent novel Jaws) always appreciate it when the authors of such novels go the extra mile for our entertainment, and thanks to a positively inspired stroke of genius, Alten’s novel goes the extra light-year. As the awestruck critic for the Los Angeles Times wrote (nabbing the kind of perfect blurb we hacks all dream about), “Two words: Jurassic Shark!”
The book starts off simply enough: it’s 70 million years ago, and a herd (flock?) of peaceful hadrosaurs is grazing on seaweed by the Pacific Ocean, little guessing that their every move is being watched:
Across the beach, hidden among the tall trees and thick undergrowth, a pair of red reptilian eyes followed the herd. The Tyrannosaurus rex, the largest and most lethal of all terrestrial carnivores, stood twenty-two feet above the forest floor. Saliva oozed from its mouth as T. rex watched, quivering with adrenaline.
The T. rex erupts from cover and chases two of the hadrosaurs out into the surf – where, you guessed it, the hunter becomes the hunted: lurking offshore is Carcharodon megalodon, the biggest of all the prehistoric sharks. It makes quick work of the T. rex, and 70 million years later, it’s still amazing ruggedly handsome forty-something paleontologist Jonas Taylor as he describes the beast to his students in sunny La Jolla, California:
“Imagine a great white shark, fifty to sixty feet in length, weighing close to forty thousand pounds. Can you visualize that? I find it hard to imagine myself sometimes, but this monster did exist. Its head alone was probably as large as a Dodge Ram pickup. Its jaws could have engulfed and swallowed four grown men whole. And I haven’t even mentioned the teeth: razor-sharp, seven to nine inches long, with the serrated edges of a stainless-steel steak knife.”
The stuff of nightmares indeed, but surely toothless after 70 million years? After all, Megalodon went extinct – we have the ineptly-reconstructed fossilized skeletons to prove it, right?
Ah, but such certainty reckons without the fiendish inventiveness of the true-blue hack writer! Alten’s thinking was neatly, surgically two-step: first, if by some freak chance a breeding population of Megalodons managed to survive to the present day, where on Earth would be both big enough and remote enough so that they’d have had no interaction with mankind in all that time? And why, the answer to that is simplicity itself: the deepest Marianas-style trenches of the ocean floor! Nevermind that they aren’t nearly big enough, and nevermind that they contain not a fraction of the food-stock necessary to feed even two or three Megs, let alone the forty thousand you’d need to keep a big, complex species going for 70 million years – doesn’t matter! There’s gold in them there trenches! They’re DEEP!
And what about the second problem, incidental to the first: that those trenches are so deep anything living in them would have adapted to the cement-crushing depth-pressure and thus couldn’t possibly survive anywhere close to the surface. What good is a surviving population of Megs if they’re all dying of the bends in Chapter 2?
Alten thinks up solution to that problem in about ten minutes, much aided by a somewhat cavalier attitude toward physics and biochemistry – and presto! He’s got a gigantic, albino (because it lived so long out of reach of sunlight, you see – I mean, really! Our author has some respectability!) prehistoric shark roaming the pacific, snacking on whales and eventually zeroing in on that most interesting of all menu-items, humans.
Lots of those humans are bad guys, naturally (the particular Puritan strain that’s always run through American fiction virtually guarantees this, time and again, in almost every even vaguely horror-themed book), but enough of them are innocent so that something must be done – and Professor Taylor is just the guy to do it, especially since, many years ago when he was a callow youth on a deep-trench expedition, he swears he saw one of these Megs, giant ghostly white, and has had nightmares about them ever since.
Alten extrapolates his plot with confident mania, but as with Jaws, the whole thing basically boils down to haunted man versus hungry shark (reading the above excerpt, those of you who are Biblically inclined might even be able to guess the exact nature of that final confrontation). And although the “Meg” series spawned many sequels, there’s a particular home-run feel to this first installment that’s the sure sign of a carny classic – if I made a shelf of such so-bad-they’re-good books here at Stevereads, Meg would have pride of place.