Blasphemy, by Douglas Preston

Scientific thriller Blasphemy, by Douglas Preston, a real page turner, tells the biggest story: the birth and unstoppable growth of a new scientific religion, perhaps revealed by God himself.

Best selling author Preston (writing solo instead of the usual collaboration with Lincoln Child), knows how to tell a breathtaking story. Preston is a mainstream writer, but Blasphemy (2008) is solid, imaginative, well written science fiction that will make you turn page after page and think, think, think. Five out of five stars.

In Red Mesa, Arizona, scientists have built the most powerful particle accelerator on Earth, Isabella, a fictional higher-energy version of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Isabella is so powerful that it can create Big Bang -like energies and rip holes in the fabric of space-time itself.

12 researchers, most with troubled personal histories, work at Red Mesa under the charismatic leadership of physicist Gregory North Hazelius, a Nobel Prize winner recognized as one of the smartest persons alive.

Of course the Isabella collider is under constant threat of funding cuts by Washington. The local Navajo population opposes the project, and a popular fundamentalist televangelist denounces it as a blasphemy, evil science that wants to explain the Big Bang and Creation without God. Others fear that the very high energies generated by Isabella will create a singularity, a micro black hole that may destroy the Earth.

Wyman Ford, a former CIA field agent who became a monk after his wife was killed in action, and then became a private detective, is sent from Washington to liaise with the Navajo community, but also to find out what is really going on behind the scenes — the reports of the scientists are weird.

The scientists receive a message that seems to come directly from the zone of extreme space-time curvature that forms where particles and anti-particles collide.

“‘Who are you?’ Kate typed. ‘For lack of a better word, I am God.'”

The scientists are initially skeptical and suspect a hoax, but the beauty and consistency of the words of God persuade them. Now they have the mission to reveal a new formulation of religion, based on science.

While the scientists are talking to God in the deep underground control room, a government SWAT team is sent to Red Mesa to take control of the facility and shut it down. But rumors of the evil machine that claims to be God have been spread virally on the Internet, and thousands of outraged Christian fundamentalists are marching on Red Mesa to end the blasphemy in blood.

Isabella is destroyed and Hazelius martyred, but the Word of God is saved and revealed by the other scientists, and the new religion spreads like wildfire.

Only Wyman Ford knows that the words of God come from a software program developed by Hazelius, who admits the truth before dying. But the program, based on sophisticated AI techniques, had basically written itself on top of the initial bootstrap code developed by Hazelius and “performed beyond specs,” often surprising Hazelius himself. At the end Ford thinks that perhaps, in some way, the new religion really comes from God.

“And every time [Ford] read [the words of God], he was haunted by a very strange idea. Hazelius had told him in the burning mines: ‘The program itself was anything but simple — I’m not sure even I understand it. It said a lot of things I never intended it to say — things that I never dreamed of. You might say it performed beyond specs.’
Beyond specs indeed. Every time he reread the so-called words of God, the more convinced he was that a great truth, perhaps even the great truth, lay buried in them. ‘The truth shall make you free.’ They were Jesus’s words as quoted in John. They triggered another Biblical phrase in his head: ‘God moves in mysterious ways.’ Perhaps, thought Ford, this new religion might well be His most mysterious move of all.”

Regardless of its origins — God’s revelation, an AI program inspired by God, the ravings of a mad scientist, or brilliant memetic engineering — the new religion, “the Search,” is beautiful. It is awesome, full of sense of wonder, compatible with science, and “useful” in the sense that it can take us beyond current humanity 1.0, and then to the stars where we will eventually meet God. In this sense, the Search is true religion, and Wyman Ford will not stand in its way.