Our book today is Charles Wilson’s 1997 classic Extinct, in which an intrepid marine biologist finds himself enlisted in the most unlikely contest of all: with the megalodon, a gigantic species of prehistoric shark that could grow to 50 or 60 or even 80 feet but has been considered extinct for millions of years. In Wilson’s book, see, the megalodons have survived unglimpsed by humans for all those millions of years by hiding out in the abysmal depths of the Marianas Trench, where they’ve …
… you’re making that face, and I don’t blame you. Like me, you’re thinking: wait a minute – isn’t that the exact same plot as Steve Alten’s novel Meg, also published in 1997? Intrepid marine biologist? Check. Gigantic prehistoric killer shark? Check? Hiding in the Marianas Trench all this time? Check, check, and check. So what’s going on?
As far as I can tell, mere blind Darwinism is going on. The general reading public was presented in 1997 with two novels about gigantic prehistoric killer sharks, and it picked one of those two and turned it into a cult classic – and it forgot the other one. And that’s a shame, because Charles Wilson’s career shows him to be a reliable old hack of the first order, somebody who can cook up a sturdy plot, populate it with sturdy one-dimensional characters, and stir it like a fine, filling gumbo. And Extinct is not exception: it’s a terrific read, especially in summer, when all thoughts turn to mutilated, half-eaten ocean bathers.
It’s also, of course, an utterly absurd book – and for the same reason Meg is an utterly absurd book: because despite its trappings, it’s as deeply anti-scientific as your average young-Earth creationist church pamphlet. The Marianas Trench is less than 2000 miles long and less than 50 miles wide. It’s about 6 or 7 miles deep at its deepest point – and something that had evolutionarily adapted to life way down there would instantly and grotesquely die if it vacationed up at the ocean’s surface. The Trench is another world: lightless, crushing, confined, and lacking great shoals of prey animals. In other words, the Marianas Trench isn’t your Get Out of Jail card – it’s no more capable of supporting a bunch of breeding populations of 80-foot superpredators for millions of years than Loch Ness is. The scientific illiteracy takes the usual form: the monster somehow exists free of its own population. Your megalodon novels might have one meg or two or four, but they don’t have hundred of thousands of carnivorous super-predators, somehow living on algae in complete darkness for millions of years.
Still, it’s a totally nifty schlock hook: not just an enormous great white shark, but a super-enormous great white shark, something that could swallow its human victims whole, in one gulp. Turn one of those things loose on an unsuspecting coastal community, drag in your heroic marine biologist, contrive your plot so that everybody, and I mean positively everybody spends time waist-deep in the water, imbue the giant killer shark with the intelligence of a particularly evil chimpanzee (instead of a goldfish with a thyroid imbalance), and you’re off to the races.
In the case of Extinct, the heroic marine biologist is Alan Freeman, but he’s not the only one interested in the megalodon that inexplicably begins eating people along the Mississippi Gulf Coast; no, there’s also Admiral Vandiver, a crusty old salt who’s always harbored a crackpot secret theory that the megs somehow survived for millions of years in the deep trenches of the ocean without any human shipping ever suspecting a thing. But why, Vandiver wonders, would the megalodons have retreated to those deep trenches in the first place (“to make novels like Extinct possible” not being an option on the admiral’s table, keep in mind)? What are the possibilities?
Something chasing them from the shallower waters? It was unlikely that there was ever a creature that swam in the seas that was so fearsome that the megalodon had run in fright. Maybe not a creature at all, he thought. Perhaps in the world changing from glacial to tropical climates a hole unimaginable today had appeared in the ozone layer. Maybe somehow the megalodons were sensitive to that. The dim rays of the light spectrum could penetrate to around fifteen hundred feet in water – that might have driven them at least to those depths. Or perhaps a switching of global temperatures created something on the order of an all-encompassing, worldwide poisoning of the shallow waters in the same manner that weather triggered what would be termed a red tide today.
The admiral’s not conclusively sure how this monster is alive today, much less why it isn’t back in its home at the bottom of the sea but is instead willing – and, somehow, able – to lurk in the extremely shallow waters of the coastal marshes (seriously, this thing, which is the size of a city bus, spends the first half of the book hanging out close enough to shore so that it can snatch deer off the bank). And Alan Freeman doesn’t have any answers either. And while the two of them – at cross-purposes, naturally – continue searching for answers, the megalodon continues its demented killing spree – including that signature coup de grace that mere great white sharks can’t manage:
Leonard’s eyes widened in shock.
The bottle fell from his hand.
The shape made a sudden lunge forward. Stella was swallowed whole from the rear to the front. No sound. A last glimpse of her blond hair. The great mouth closed.
The creature, dark and glistening, lay unmoving as the waves crashed around it and against it, its black, round eyes staring directly at Leonard.
Too paralyzed to move, Leonard nearly passed out. With a superhuman effort, he took a step backward. Another step. His body trembling as if he were standing naked in a hundred-degree-below zero wind, he finally managed to turn – and ran.
“Aaaarrrgh” indeed. No idea why Stella went so quietly; after all, if she’s been swallowed whole then she hasn’t been bitten, right? As far as she’s concerned, she’s been suddenly scooped up into a foul-smelling sleeping bag – she wouldn’t instantly die from that (although the meg might; its mouth might be big enough to swallow a grown woman whole, but its esophagus certainly couldn’t handle anything that size unless it was chewed first), so why wouldn’t she raise a ruckus?
It’s one of many unanswered why-type questions in books like this. Why does this one megalodon come to hang out in Mississippi waters? Why does it concentrate so hard on snapping up grade school kids when it could feast on schools of hefty tuna in the open ocean? Why, once they know there’s a supernaturally big and clever shark in the water, does the book’s entire cast contrive reasons to be out on boats, down on dives, or otherwise splashing around?
Extinct is, even after all these years, quintessential summer reading, and in quintessential summer reading, we don’t ask such questions. Instead, we ask: does this hack novel keep me interested? And it does, dear reader, it most certainly does. Find a copy at your summer getaway’s used bookstore and read it happily on the beach. And then – why not? – toss it aside and plunge into the water for a nice refreshing swim out beyond the breakers.
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