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Natural Selection

by K.m.kantipudi

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From Publishers Weekly
The sea monster "Demonray," who makes landfall in Freedman's far-fetched but entertaining debut, possesses all the predatory features to provide maximum chills. It's got a big brain, big wings, big teeth and a big purpose: to devour anything in its path, including humans. Harry Ackerman, a jaded millionaire whose Manta World (think Jurassic Park) failed when all his captive manta rays died, learns about the sighting of a mysterious flying ray and dispatches a staff of young scientists led by ichthyologist Jason Aldridge, "the next Jacques Cousteau," to investigate. What they find is no ordinary airborne ray, but an amphibious "new order" that has the potential to wipe out mankind. The exciting, science-packed hunt moves quickly but slows down once the crew encounters the Demonray in Northern California's Redwood National Park. Culminating in a cartoonish showdown, this Michael Crichton adventure wanna-be suffers from other odd plot elements, unconvincing romance and pedestrian prose, but it might make an awesome beach read. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com
Dave Freedman opens Natural Selection with a transparent Hollywood tagline: "Monsters aren't real . . . Are they?" He moves through a dry outline of his speculative conceits concerning evolution. And he concludes: "Soon a small group of men and women will come face-to-face with a living nightmare. And then, even the skeptics among them will realize not only that monsters are real, but that evolution has just made the most horrifying one of them all."

As a dramatic introduction to the story waiting in the wings, this is an utter misstep, emblematic of several subsequent amateur gaffes in this debut novel.

Still, readers who persist past this awkward introduction and overlook intermittent wince-worthy sentences will find an earnest Michael Crichton-style thriller that respects science and its audience's intellect, while delivering a modest number of chills.

Six scientists -- Phil, Jason, Lisa, Darryl, Craig and Monique -- aboard a well-equipped research vessel, funded by a dot-com millionaire named Harry Ackerman, are conducting commercial investigations into the deep-sea lives of various species of manta rays. Several anomalies lead them to believe that a new type of ray has begun to emerge. And the giant unprecedented beastie soon proves itself to be a master predator. So far, so bad, for life in the sea. But when this critter exhibits the ability to fly and breathe air, humanity itself is threatened. As the mutant rays colonize a state park along California's coast, gobbling bears, deer and the occasional jogger, our team finds its mission changing from documentation to defensive survival.

Freedman introduces his protagonists economically, sketching them in bold bright colors that substitute for depth. Ackerman is capitalism personified, in both its good and bad aspects. Jason, the leader of the scientists, is an anal perfectionist loner. Darryl is a mystical Afro-Amerindian "former ROTC member," his wife, Monique, a supportive helpmeet yearning to start a family. Craig is Darryl's best buddy. Lisa is career-motivated but caring. Whiny, insecure Phil, who looks at first to be an obvious "redshirt" -- the guy fated to die early, as in the old Star Trek episodes -- proves to have facets of both selfishness and selflessness. Relations among the cast involve a lot of nickname usage -- "Hoss," "Soccer Mom," "Big Dog" -- while a budding love affair between Jason and Lisa provides the requisite romance. Jumps in point-of-view among the characters -- sometimes disconcertingly between adjacent paragraphs -- frustrate our identification with any single hero.

The intelligent mantas also let us into their thought process, and Freedman generally manages to avoid the trap of anthropomorphism, providing insights into the environmental pressures the critters face and their natural urges.

In fact, Freedman's portrayal of the scientific process and of natural forces is the best thing about this book. In a day and age when "intelligent design" is touted as a respectable credo, a piece of pop entertainment that takes the time to uphold Darwin's thesis in readable fashion is to be heartily endorsed, even if the book speeds up evolution to a ridiculous rate.

Freedman's prose is serviceable, and he has a knack for using common objects to make the uncanny believable. For instance: "The closed mouth [of the ray] was the size of a snow shovel, with horns like stumpy soda cans sticking out on either side." But now and then his reach exceeds his grasp. Darryl is "the size of a professional athlete." Now is that a jockey, a golfer, a bowler or a quarterback?

The climax of Freedman's book is small-scale: one manta ray against six humans. Although he speculates on larger scenarios, he resolutely avoids depicting the global implications of his monsters, as John Wyndham did in The Day of the Triffids (1951), or even as Alfred Hitchcock did in "The Birds" (1963). Too bad.

For boldness of global scope, Freedman might have emulated an episode of "The Simpsons" in which humanity is deposed from its throne atop all creation and driven into an aquatic niche by vengeful, super-intelligent dolphins led by "King Snorky." In that one vignette, Freedman's entire thesis and plot are encapsulated with unforgettable humor. And you got to see Homer sock a bottlenose in the snout.

Reviewed by Paul Di Filippo
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

From Booklist
This debut novel changes before your very eyes. It begins as an implausible riff on Jurassic Park, with carnivorous rays (those big, flat sea creatures) standing in for the dinosaurs. But somewhere along the way, something remarkable happens to the story: you start believing it. Is it the author's enthusiasm, or his characters, or his research? Whatever the reason, there comes a moment when you feel the first twinge of fear, and then you realize that you're buying into this story of giant, prehistoric rays that have learned to fly (yes, fly, in the air) and are now hunting on land. Some of the imagery--shapes swooping out of the blackness, rays as big as hang gliders hovering in midair--evoke a visceral terror in the reader. And the protagonists, a research crew struggling to figure out what these creatures are--and then running for their lives from them--are a likable bunch. Okay, so bits of the story are a little shopworn, like the financially strapped theme-park owner who sends the crew of plucky young scientists out to find the creatures, but in the end, this hardly matters. Like all the best horror authors, Freedman takes his story well beyond the safety of camp; by making it believable, he makes it genuinely terrifying--and when that happens, large audiences follow. Don't be surprised if giant flying fish are the talk of the summer. Keep watching the skies. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

People Magazine
"A sci-fi thriller that combines the best of Jaws and Jurassic Park."

Cincinnati Library Review
"An action-packed debut. Make sure to pack this one for your next trip to the beach."

Kirkus Reviews
"Action scenes will have Hollywood animation artists salivating."

USA Today - Named a Top 10 Hottest Summer Read
"Jaws meets Charles Darwin ... Much forboding ... doesn't slow down the plot."

Product Description
A team of marine scientists is on the verge of making the most stunning discovery in the history of man: a previously unknown predatory species, alive now, evolving just like the dinosaursand being forced out of its world and into man's for a violent first encounter.

In their quest for answers, they engage a host of fascinating charactersexperts in neurology and deep sea geology, flight-simulation wizards, and evolution historiansand set off together to exotic locales, experiencing love, friendship, loyalty, and betrayal along the way. When people start dying, the real hunt begins.

Weaving science and thriller in a way not seen since Jurassic Park, Natural Selection is that rare blend of intricately layered research, rich characters, and tornado pacing.

About the Author
Dave Freedman lives in Southern California with his wife. He has a Bachelor of Science degree from Princeton and a Masters degree from Harvard. Natural Selection is his first novel.



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