“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for their crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”
In other words, eugenics—improving a species by eliminating “undesirable” individuals. Most people, asked who wrote those words, would cite Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. Actually, it was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. writing for the 8-1 majority in the Supreme Court’s 1927 decision enthusiastically legitimizing eugenics in America. That was part of eugenics’ first great wave. The Nazis, of course, carried out the second. There has not been a third—yet.
So what on earth is eugenics doing in a thriller? Three things distinguish my novels: real threats to the planet, plausible science, and extreme environments. Thus the planetary threat in FROZEN SOLID is overpopulation and eugenics, writ very large, is the plausible science that rogue scientists will use to eliminate earth’s human overload.
But isn’t that the realm of science fiction? In a word, no. Science fiction, to my way of thinking, involves things that can be imagined but not, for the time being, actually accomplished. Levitation. Teleportation. Warp Speed. Realistic fiction, of which thrillers are a subgenre, involves the actually possible. Michael Crichton, of course, was the ultimate master of tiptoeing right up to the edge of scientific possibility. His novels remain so fascinating because they are grounded in reality, not fantasy. In other words, things that really could have happened then and there. Mine are about things that could happen here and now. The action in FROZEN SOLID is indeed possible—frighteningly so, in fact. In the book, a group of capable, respected scientists become convinced that overpopulation is dooming the planet. Certain that governments will never act in time, they decide to take matters into their own hands. Their plan is called Triage because dire threats require dire remedies.
Students of history, incidentally, might argue that eugenicists sought to eliminate characteristics like low intelligence, mental illness, physical deformity, etc. Reducing the size of a planet’s population doesn’t seem to fit in with those others. In fact, though, it does. At bottom, eugenics is about altering a species’ characteristics. Size is perhaps the most basic characteristic of all and it’s the one that Triagers want to change.
Regarding plausibility, scientists created hybrid microorganisms like the one posited in FROZEN SOLID some years ago, so they’re not just a figment of imagination. Genetically engineering a microorganism to attack certain organs or cell types (cancer, say) has also been done. To date, these accomplishments have not been used nefariously, but they certainly could be. And if that seems an outlandish approach to population control, recall that decades ago, legitimate and in some cases acclaimed scientists advocated adding birth control chemicals to public water supplies.
As far as extreme environments are concerned, from the beginning I decided to distinguish my books by taking readers to extremes they were unlikely to encounter on their own and that I’d experienced firsthand myself. There’s no way to overstate the importance of my nonfiction writing here. Time and again, it took me to such extremes: hang gliding, rock climbing, Alaskan mountaineering, extreme skiing, diving, and wild caving, among others. (Not to mention working as a street cop in Washington D.C.’s “Murder Capitol of the Nation” days.) So it made sense to draw on those experiences to give my readers something extra and special.
FROZEN SOLID’s extreme setting, in particular, was determined by the villains’ plan. Triage required a facility adequate for sophisticated—and dangerous—genetic engineering. The work had to be done secretly. And it had to happening a place where an accident—premature release, faulty engineering, whatever—would not cause global catastrophe. One place satisfied those requirements–the laboratories in the Amundsen Scott Research Station at the South Pole, arguably the most extreme environment on earth.
Extreme may be too mild a word for conditions there. For perspective, consider that the average surface temperature on Mars is -80F. At the South Pole in winter, it’s -100F. It is dark 24 hours a day for six long months and there is no way in or out. This is the world Hallie Leland enters, ostensibly to finish important research after a South Pole scientist dies mysteriously. “Ostensibly” being the key word in that sentence. Things, of course, are not as they seem.
Then again, are they ever in thrillers?
Hailed as “the new Michael Crichton,” James M. Tabor is the bestselling author of THE DEEP ZONE and the international award-winning BLIND DESCENT. Host and writer for the acclaimed PBS series THE GREAT OUTDOORS, he is also the co-creator and executive producer of The History Channel Special, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE WORLD. Tabor has appeared on THE TODAY SHOW, THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART and many other national programs.
To learn more about James, please visit his website.
Tabor earned an MFA from Johns Hopkins University and won the O.Henry Award for short fiction. He was the host and writer of the national PBS series, “The Great Outdoors, andco-creator and executive producer of The History Channel special, “Journey to the Center of the World.” He lives in Vermont, where he is at work on his next novel and a memoir about his days as a street cop in Washington, D.C.