Extinction: A Novel

Image of Extinction: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 23, 2024
Forge Books
Reviewed by: 

“a frightening tale, stuffed with villains and other scary creatures, but it’s also a cautionary one about the dangers of scientific experiments that might go seriously wrong.”

Extinction or De-extinction? The latter is also a real concept, which the consummate thriller writer, scientist, paleontologist, anthropologist, geologist, and historian Douglas Preston latches onto with gusto. This is an author with encyclopedic knowledge, who combines feats of superb storytelling with his passion for educating readers about scientific mysteries and exotic places, eras, and cultures.

In a Colorado enclave surrounded by thirteen-thousand-foot peaks, Erebus Resort is inserted partly within old mining tunnels and based on the design of Treetops in Kenya. It is run by a group of scientists and a billionaire financier who have “de-extincted” some Pleistocene beasts such as woolly mammoths, one of whom was “fifteen feet at the shoulder, his tusks great scimitars of ivory as long as his body, sweeping outward from a shaggy domed head.” These great mammals have been “re-wilded” to roam within ninety thousand acres, with guests able to view them from the lodge or on the grounds. As a guide reassures a young couple who are camping onsite, “Nothing to worry about. They’re as peaceful as puppy dogs.” The reader instantly perches on the edge of his or her chair.

Soon after, the man and wife are killed in gruesome fashion and Frances (Frankie) Cash, from the Colorado Bureau of Investigations, has been appointed Agent in Charge. Sheriff James Colgard is on deck to assist, along with a crew of forensics scientists and Erebus’ extensive security team led by Andrew Maximilian, who explains that every de-extincted animal “is chipped and equipped with a GPS unit and live video collar, monitored continuously.” Also, we learn that the aggression gene has been removed in each, and no predators—such as saber-toothed tigers—have been de-extincted. So the reader can relax, right? Not in a Douglas Preston novel.

In a secondary plot, a movie crew has set up near the resort, with plans to shoot the explosion of a realistic fake train. Even here, Preston entertains with this surprising information about the use of stuffed animals: “The plushies had been dusted with accelerants and various mineral powders, the bigger ones cut in pieces. When the dynamite went off, the stuffed animals would become dramatic pieces of flaming debris streaking from the explosion like so many fiery comets.” He adds, “they were loose and gangly, they burned well and broke apart in flight. And they had no hard parts; if they flew too far and hit someone, they were soft.” Again, what could go wrong? Dynamite and stuffed animals?

As he and his friend and frequent co-writer, Lincoln Child, often do, human phobias are introduced to heighten the reader’s anxiety. In Extinction, not only must we contend with huge Ice Age beasts, but Cash and Colgard are forced to enter old mining tunnels that are dark and branch in numerous sub-sections. So we are treated to a claustrophobic environment, one poorly lit by the investigators’ flashlights, and as Cash imagines, the weight of millions of pounds of mountain pressing down on them.

In addition to creating breathtaking action, the author is also a fine writer, who sets a scene with glowing detail. As Frankie Cash surveys the location of the murders, she “could see the lake, shimmering like a piece of fallen sky.” Or later: “the little stream cascaded down . . . making a merry splashing sound, with clumps of tiny alpine wildflowers along its course.” These light and elegant descriptions serve as brilliant counterpoints that contrast with the nightmarish dangers that lurk around Cash and Colgard and the guests staying at Erebus.

Because the de-extinction process is essential to the plot, Preston informs us about how it works. When Cash and Colgard visit Erebus’ CRISPR lab, the chief scientist says that DNA samples were extracted from the cochlea (a tiny bone in the inner ear) from a fossil, which was amplified “millions of times using the polymerase chain reaction.” He continues: “First, we sequence the mammoth genes—all 4.7 billion base pairs” and compare them “to the genome of its closest relative, the Asian elephant.” After mapping the differences, then “we took a fertilized Asian elephant embryo, cut and pasted the mammoth genes in the embryo while snipping out the genes specific only to the elephant . . . and implanted the embryo into the womb of a female elephant.” And last, “the surrogate mother elephant [gives] birth to a woolly mammoth calf.” At a multimillion-dollar cost per animal.

This complex genetic engineering, however, is not a product of Preston’s imagination. In the afterword, he mentions that “geneticists  are already on the cusp of resurrecting several extinct creatures” using CRISPR technology. As the author writes, “That’s the problem with science . . . if something can be done, it will be done—no matter how dangerous.” So Extinction is a frightening tale, stuffed with villains and other scary creatures, but it’s also a cautionary one about the dangers of scientific experiments that might go seriously wrong.