MEG: A Novel of Deep Terror, by Steve Alten; Doubleday: 279 pp., $22.95


By RICHARD ELLIS

Published in: Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 20, 1996

Ever since the 1975 publication of the blockbuster novel Jaws, and the hugely successful movie directed by Steven Spielberg, authors have tried to improve on Peter Benchley's formula for success. If a 25-foot shark could generate all that money, think of what a 100-footer could do. Or a 200-footer!

There is no shark that is 100 feet long, but it so happens that the star of Jaws, the great white shark (scientific name: Carcharodon carcharias), has a relative -- or rather, had a relative -- that may have reached a length of 50 feet. This is the creature known as Carcharodon megalodon, megalodon means "giant tooth." The largest known teeth of the white shark are about 2 inches in height, but fossil teeth of C. megalodon have been found that measure 6 inches long. All the C. megalodon teeth ever found have been fossils; dark gray, brown, or black, and they are made of stone, not dentine. The fact that no fresh C. megalodon teeth have ever been found strongly suggests that this giant relative of the white shark is extinct. Of course, there is no way of conclusively proving that this monster does not exist, and this is the stuff that giant shark novels are made of.

In 1983, Robin Brown wrote a novel he called "Megalodon," which was about a 200-foot long ancestor of the great white shark that was blind, covered with a coat of crustaceans, and living at great depths. In 1987, George Edward Noe self-published a little number he called "Carcharodon," in which the giant shark has been imprisoned for a couple of million years in an iceberg that thaws, and all hell breaks loose because the shark is really hungry. It goes on a rampage like its predecessors in Brown's book, and before we are finished, we have the marine biologist hero renting a Norwegian whaling ship and shooting the shark with a grenade harpoon. This year's "Extinct" by Charles Wilson with a jacket advertisement that ominously warns, "Coming to NBC-TV," is set on the Gulf coast of Mississippi. Even though Wilson gives us a whole new setting, we still have the same old stuff about a gigantic shark rising from the depths with its gaping maw -- these guys love to write "gaping maw" -- to pluck unwary children and fishermen from the water.

Surely the worst of all the titles is "Meg" -- it sounds more like a nanny than a man eating shark -- published by Doubleday with all the fanfare of another "Jaws" or "Jurassic Park." Indeed, the advance reading copy that I have in front of me is emblazoned with every sort of encomium and sales pitch, such as the following: "If Peter Benchley, Michael Crichton, and Clive Cussler were to combine their talents to create the ultimate summer read, MEG would be the result -- an electrifying page turner that will keep more people out of the water than "Jaws."

Don't they wish. Not only is it not the slightest bit terrifying, it is unintentionally, hilariously funny, largely because almost every page contains a genuine howler. Whenever the author discusses biology, paleontology, oceanography, or any other recognized scientific subject, he gets it wrong. It is obvious that Alten equipped himself with a book about sharks, a study of submersibles, some weirdly off-base material about whales, and everything that Peter Benchley, Michael Crichton, and Clive Cussler ever wrote, and then mixed them together to produce an almost totally incoherent story, in which the human characters make no sense, the sharks and whales behave like unknown animals from the planet Zarkon, and the technology sounds like a cross between Rube Goldberg and Buck Rogers.

I am not talking only about arcane scientific constructs that only an ichthyologist would notice; I am talking about sentences like this: "his foot knocked over the empty coffee pot, staining the beige carpet brown." Or: "The Megalodon could detect the faint electrical field of its prey's beating heart or moving muscles hundreds of miles away." On page 109 they approach the carcass of a "dead humpback whale." Two pages later it has become a "dead Orca."

One of the more imaginative inventions in the C. megalodon canon is Alten's explanation for why the giant sharks have remained unnoticed for so long. It seems that they live in the very deepest part of the ocean, the bottom of the Mariana Trench, which has somehow become a hydrothermal vent area, bubbling with superheated water. "The water temperature above the warm layer," he writes, "is near freezing. The Meg could never survive the transition through the cold in order to surface." Whoa! What happened to physics as we know it? Only in Alten's topsy-turvy world can there be a situation where warmer water remains below colder water. There is no way Alten could have written this nonsense unless he had convinced himself that it wouldn't matter if he played fast and loose with reality. "Listen man," you can hear the author say, "this is fiction -- I get to make stuff up."

Like this phantasmagorical description of the monster shark: "... it's totally white, actually luminescent. This is a common genetic adaptation to its environment where no light exists."

As a helicopter hovers above this luminescent monster, "The Megalodon launched straight out of the sea like an intercontinental ballistic missile, flying at the hovering helicopter faster than [the pilot] could increase his altitude... Only the seat belt kept his body from falling into the night where the garage-sized head closed quickly, its fangs five feet away."

In another encounter, the shark approaches a submarine that, "at 3,000 tons easily outweighed her. But the Meg could swim and change course faster than her adversary; moreover, no adult Megalodon would allow a challenge to its rule to go unanswered. Approaching from above, the female accelerated at the sub's hull like a berserk, sixty-foot locomotive. BOOM!!"

As might be expected, the shark is dispatched by an intrepid marine biologist, but nothing in this ridiculous book compares with Alten's unbelievable conclusion. The hero, named Jonas Taylor (Jonas -- I ask you!) is in his one-man submersible when, like the biblical Jonah, he gets swallowed by the shark. He climbs out of the submarine, reaches into his backpack where he always carries a fossil C. megalodon tooth, and he carves up the shark up and kills it from the inside. Then he climbs back into the submarine (which he re-locates by shining his flashlight around in the belly of the shark) and ejects himself from the shark's mouth. As Dave Barry says, I'm not making this up.

Under ordinary circumstances, a book as terrible as this would hardly be noticed, or at least, it would be recognized for what it is: a stepping-stone to a Hollywood extravaganza with expensive special effects, throbbing music, and plenty of blood. But "Meg" is being hyped so hysterically that it doesn't matter if it makes any sense or even if it's readable. It's enough that it's about a giant shark that glows in the dark, launches itself like an ICBM, and eats 14 whales at a time.

When Doubleday published Jaws in 1975, they paid Peter Benchley an advance in the mid-four figures. Now the same publisher has joined the ranks of those who can twist their own definition of literature (there must be another name for this stuff) to justify paying a million dollars for this outrageously awful book, crammed with egregious errors of fact, and stuffed to the gills with writing so awful that it would insult the intelligence of a sea cucumber.

And the most embarrassing thing about all of this is that they -- and the author -- are proud of what they have done. On the flap of the copy I have, somebody wrote, "Steve Alten's story is an inspiring tale of perseverance against the odds, and the power of a good yarn. In a single month, he went from being an unemployed father of three with $48 in the bank to a multi-millionaire author and screen writer." Doubleday was obviously looking for another Jaws to make it rich. For publishing this rubbish, it ought to be ashamed of itself. I am more than a little embarrassed to see than in his author's note, Alten acknowledges me and John McCosker for our book "Great White Shark" as "an excellent source of information on both Megalodons and great whites." If "Meg" is what we spawned, then we ought to be ashamed of ourselves too.

Richard Ellis is the author of "Deep Atlantic," "Monsters of the Sea," "The Book of Whales," "Dolphins and Porpoises," "The Book of Sharks," "Men and Whales," and "Great White Shark," with John McCosker.