Monday, October 15, 2012

Cambodia and Mars

It took less than 2 days to finish Douglas Preston's thriller Impact, mainly as I had time to sit down and concentrate during the Pchum Ben holiday. It came out at the beginning of 2010 and with a Bayon face on the paperback cover, it was an obvious read for me. Part of the story is set in the Cambodian jungle and takes the reader through to one of the moons of Mars, so its a pretty wide-ranging science fiction thriller. It rattles along at a frantic pace, with standard thriller elements including an ex-CIA good guy, a university drop-out who just happens to be a whiz at astronomy, a hit-man who takes his work seriously and a lot of stuff in boats. There's also a suggestion that Pakistan will one day take over the world (is that anytime soon?) and that an alien gun has its sights set on destroying the earth. As you'd expect, far fetched but isn't that the fun with thrillers. In the end the good guys win, so all's well that ends well. I'm always intrigued why authors select Cambodia for their novels and this explanation from Douglas Preston answers that question.

In December 1996, NASA flew a special reconnaissance DC-8 over the jungles of northwestern Cambodia. The plane was equipped with a foliage-penetrating radar camera which took pictures of a great swath of rainforest. When the resulting data were crunched on a T3D Cray supercomputer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, a discovery was made. A vast, ruined temple, covering almost a square mile of land and dating from the 12th century, was buried in the jungle. An expedition was mounted to go to this temple, which was named Nokor Pheas after the closest village. At the time, I was working for National Geographic magazine, and I managed to get a berth on the expedition, which was led by Elizabeth Moore, head of the Department of Art and Archaeology at the University of London and an authority on the ancient Angkor civilization. Also on the expedition were Anthony Freeman and Scott Hensley, two top scientists from JPL.
This experience would lead, more than ten years later, to the events described in my new novel, Impact. When we arrived in Cambodia in 1998, we learned that there were no roads to Nokor Pheas and that the trails were flooded from the monsoons and still heavily mined from the war. In addition, the lost temple was, unfortunately, located in Khmer Rouge territory (the Khmer Rouge had, by that time, evolved into guerrilla bands involved in kidnapping and smuggling.) Five days before, the Khmer Rouge had kidnapped three people from the village of Nokor Pheas and were holding them for ransom. Elizabeth Moore was not deterred. With cajoling, pleading, and of course heavy payments, we were able to secure permission for the expedition to search for the temple. We hired a small army of soldiers and ‘rented’ a fleet of old motorbikes which could negotiate the jungle trails. The bikes were light enough, we were assured, to not set off the land mines, which had been calibrated to go off when triggered by the weight of a vehicle.
Nokor Pheas, while remote, was not a huge distance from Siem Riep. The plan was to drive like hell and get there and back in the same day. Spending the night in the jungle would be suicide. We set off before sunrise. Where the last road dead-ended into the jungle, we were met, as if by a conjurer’s trick, by a swarm of motorbike-riding soldiers bristling with AK-47s and 79mm mortar launchers—our military escort. We drove for hours through the rainforest before stopping at a tiny hamlet at the edge of the Khmer Rouge territory. While we waited for the soldiers to scout the route ahead, we made a startling discovery. Most traditional Cambodian villages have a central plaza in which stands a shrine containing the ‘ancestor stones’ of the village—sacred stones that embody the spirits of their departed. One of the JPL scientists inspecting the shrine realized that one of these stones was an extremely rare meteorite. The headman of the village confirmed that the stone had been dropped from the sky by the gods.
To make a long story short, we journeyed beyond Trey Nhor, we found the great temple of Nokor Pheas, and we got back alive. It was one hell of a journey. Being a fiction writer, I was determined to use this amazing experience in my fiction someday—and I finally was able to so in Impact. There is, of course, much more in the novel—two girls who go meteorite hunting among the Maine islands; a NASA scientist who discovers a mysterious source of gamma rays in the outer Solar System and later is found beheaded; the sudden appearance of strange, radioactive gemstones on the black market in Bangkok. All these plot threads come together in Impact into an explosive—and surprising—climax.

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