Saturday, November 1, 2008

Book Review: Coils of the Serpent

I came across this book through a rather unusual channel - the author, Raymond Clark Lutz, emailed me after reading one of my blog posts and deciding that I reminded him of one of the characters in his new novel. I gathered from his first message that he'd been Googling for blogs with certain key words - DNA, viruses, creationism etc.

My reply was as follows:

"Hi, thanks for getting in touch! I'm not sure yet if I buy that I remind you of a character in your book, but it was a good enough sales pitch to take me to your website, and the excerpt looked good, so it's now on order at Amazon! It's not in stock apparently so it might take a while. I'll put the review up on my blog when I've read it.

Congratulations on publishing your novel, and good for you for your very nicely targeted marketing campaign! (I used to work in marketing myself and recognise good targeting when I see it).

Good luck!"

Raymond replied that I really did remind him of this character (Shannon), and that he thought I would like his writing more than Dan Brown's, which deals with similar "Bible vs. Science" subject matter, as he put it.

This was back in February. It took a while for the book to arrive, longer for me to get around to starting it, a while longer before I picked it up and started again having given up the first time, and even longer until I managed to get all the way through it.

Raymond, if you're still reading, I'm sorry. I really wanted to like your book, and it did have some very interesting subject matter. Not only that but you are clearly a good writer who has done lots of research. I hope you find the following review constructive because I think you're on to a good core idea here (and I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who can actually write and market a novel), but the execution needs a lot of work.


Let's start with Shannon. She is one of three main characters, and one half of a pair of polar opposites. She is a biotechnology student from a strict Catholic background and an extreme atheist, to the extent that she is unwilling to even look at a bible*.

John, on the other hand, is a committed Christian who starts the book unwilling to believe in the existence of DNA.

The other guy in the inevitable love triangle is Dan, the main character and a dotcom millionaire, whose beliefs fall somewhere between John's and Shannon's.

To solve the book's core mystery - does the bible describe DNA and human heredity? - the three friends have to delve into the nature of DNA, genes, proteins and cells, and the mechanisms of heredity and evolution, not to mention some history and lots of biblical verses and their interpretation. There is a huge amount of information that the readers need to know in order to make sense of the story. The major problem I have with Coils of the Serpent is how this information transfer is handled.

Now, the writing of this review was prompted in part by a couple of recent posts by Jenny Rohn over at Nature Network. Jenny's first novel is about to come out, and she has been blogging about how she integrates real science into a fiction setting. (See "in which I take lessons from Scotty" and "in which fact infiltrates fiction" - there may be more posts to come in this series). Jenny has some excellent advice that I think would really help the author to rework Coils of the Serpent. (It is currently a Print on Demand book, so a version 2.0 would definitely be possible).

Most chapters in the current version of the book are taken up with massive information dumps. The three friends take it in turns to inform each other, and hence the reader, about big chunks of biology, or theology, or history. The dialogue is therefore stilted and unrealistic. Nobody talks like this in real life: in complete paragraphs, with amazingly detailed information at their finger tips and with every conversation coming across as a lecture.

I think the author realised this, because he made a point of varying the settings in which these lectures take place. The friends meet in a coffee shop, then a university museum (I thought this chapter worked quite well), then a pancake house, then a park, someone's house, the coffee shop again, and someone else's house. However the detailed descriptions of the settings and furniture don't quite compensate for the huge chunks of undigested information that made this book such a long hard slog.

There is also some character background and a secondary storyline, with a bit more action, interspersed with the information dump chapters. This other plot comes as a welcome relief, but its eventual merging with the main storyline into a commando-style raid on a military facility was a bit ridiculous, especially considering the tone and pace of the preceding chapters. (But don't worry, there a few lecture chapters still to come!).

Like I said, the subject matter was interesting enough to keep me struggling through to the end. Some of the matches between the bible and aspects of biology were a pretty big stretch though. For example, any occurrence of the numbers 3 or 4 in the bible must obviously be a reference to the triplet code that translates DNA sequence into protein sequence, or the 4 constituent bases of DNA, respectively. At one point 7 somethings in the bible (deadly sins maybe? I can't remember) were matched to 3 + 4 = 7 = intelligent design ZOMG!!11!, and I confess that I rolled my eyes.

With one big exception (see below), the scientific content of the novel was pretty accurate. Despite my lack of familiarity with some of the historical and biblical references that make up the rest of the book, I therefore tended to trust the author's descriptions of them. But maybe not his interpretation. Yup, you'll no doubt be shocked to hear that I don't buy the overall premise: that unnamed intelligent designers inserted coded references to the nature of DNA, sexual reproduction and human heredity into the bible and other religious texts. But you have to admit that it's an interesting idea for a novel.

Now about that big exception...


(What else would you expect from me?!).

I don't know if the following reflects the author's own views**, or if it was included out of necessity to the plot. At one point about half way through the book, Shannon goes to visit one of her professors to be reassured about her belief in evolution as scientific fact. While he tells her that "there is great truth to any concept of evolution", he also reels off the following points that I found strangely familiar:
I typed these examples in straight from the book, then headed to the excellent Talk Origins Index to Creationist Claims to look for links. Guess what, all of the above points were in the list, and it only took me about 3 minutes to insert all of those links...

Shannon responds with "Gee, that does seem to be quite startling, completely derailing that part of Darwin's theory".

Her Professor reiterates that "There's a huge misconception by the public about the scientific acceptance of Darwin's theory. His original theory is not supported by experimental evidence. It sounds good, but it is wrong".

Alarm bells ringing for any other scientists?

In summary, decent idea derailed by poor execution and some inaccurate science.

If you're interested in reading Coils of the Serpent to form your own opinion, let me know and I'd be happy to send you my copy! (More than one offer will result in a random lottery OR the need for bribery).


*In contrast, I've read parts of it with fascination. I have my own bible, at my parents' house, a family heirloom; my paternal grandfather's family brought it with them from Ireland. The inside front cover is full of details of my family tree - names, dates of birth and death - a local tradition apparently. My sister has the equivalent bible from our paternal grandmother's Irish ancestors. It is Very Cool.

**I suspect this may be the case! In part because Coils of the Serpent just has to be the cause of this email: "As someone who has purchased books on Christian living or faith fiction from, you might like to browse our selection of new Christian titles. From the latest in the Miller Brothers' Codebearers Series, Hunter Brown and the Secret of the Shadow to Francis Chan's guide to "living crazy for God", you'll find fresh thinking about worship, fellowship and church leadership". It was either that or The God Delusion (still unread by the way, I might read it on the plane to England in December).


  1. Cath, I still think you match the personality of Shannon in the book, and I appreciate your review, despite the critical remarks about how well the story flows. Indeed, I am the author, and I came across your review via a Google alert for the name of the book.

    Attempting to get a great deal of technical information in a book that people will also read is a challenge. It is one thing to point out that the people don't talk that way (no kidding... it is a rare day indeed when people have in-depth conversations, esp. about "taboo" topics such as politics and religion) and quite another to take care of the informational requirements of the story while not taking forever to complete the task.

    Initially, I attempted to write it as nonfiction but realized that nonfiction is a bit limiting because you only get to provide the point of view of one character -- one opinion of an "expert." By creating a fictional world, it is possible to try to see the same information from several points of view, and therefore appeal to different readers, and even to present a point of view that I really don't possess.

    But the problem with moving to fiction is that people have the expectation that very little pure information will be presented, instead relying on the story to present it.

    The museum scene was a good example of an enhancement from having the same friends just sit around do info dumps. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to discuss biblical passages with the same method. If there was a good way to do that with some more active scene, it would be a great way to rework the volume. (If you have concrete ideas of how to improve it and still get the job done, I am certainly open to those ideas...)

    Then again, I think the scene at Edgar's house with the slide projector and famous artwork was a reasonable attempt to make the scene more active.

    I stand by most if not all of the technical content of the book, with the understanding that it is quite difficult to be on top of everything. And, contrary to comment snipes, I have even read Stephen J. Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory from cover to cover (1300 pages) so to say that it is too bad that I didn't review the basics on evolution is not true.

    On the question of evolution, it is indeed true that there are still unresolved details, esp. if you accept the larger definition which includes the question of origins (science tends to omit that question from the definition of the term "evolution" and this only adds to the overall confusion.) I've written a longer explanation on this point, (as you are not the first to point out that issue) and it can be found here:
    specifically the entry entitled "Evolution" is misunderstood, but you may find the other entries interesting as well.

    I want to thank you for taking your time to read through the book and attend to the ideas and questions, as I worked on this book on and off, and including my research, for nearly ten years. While I am not a creationist, I am also aware that our knowledge is incomplete regarding how life sprang forth on this planet and eventually became complex enough such that modern evolutionary theory could become active.

    From my reading, especially John Maynard Smith's The Major Transitions In Evolution, there indeed are still many unsettled questions and incomplete theories about how life got started here. The conclusion reached in the scene with Dr. Houserman is only that not everything is settled. I think that is still true despite the links that may seem to imply that those claims are somehow fully refuted.

    No scientist claims that the exact set of steps is understood in terms of how life got started, and even the details in terms of why and how species develop in jumps. It is unfortunately a weakness in the discussion for the science community to assert that this is all understood when it is not, allowing the creationists and IDists to work their way into that crack of speculation. There is nothing wrong with the concept that science does not understand everything, and that accepted theories of today may not be true, and that the details of Darwin's original theory needed some revision.

    I am extremely happy to hear that you got all the way through Coils, as I have to admit I've started many a book that I tired of long before that. I did work hard to accelerate the pace of the action toward the end, despite being wholly contrived. However, I must insist that the concept of the PITY Ranch is not too far off the mark. I have been working for quite some time in opposition to a paramilitary training camp near where I live proposed by Blackwater Worldwide (see The intent in Coils in this section was to exemplify the most coercive aspects of religion and the danger to our society. So although you find this part of the novel a bit ridiculous, I assert it is a necessary component to illustrate those components of religion used by those in power today to stay in power.

    Again, I sincerely appreciate your investment in this work, although I'm a bit put out by the fact that you are willing to give your copy away. I thought you'd place it on your shelf along side the copy of Darwin's work and perhaps keep it for many future readings!! Oh well.

    --Raymond Lutz

  2. Hi Raymond

    Thanks for stopping by! I've posted my response to your comment at my other blog, since the original review attracted some interesting comments from other users over there.


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