Douglas Prestonís incredible journey to Cambodia that helped inspire Impact
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.
(Note: some of this article previously appeared in National Geographic magazine.)
Impact (0-7653-1768-0; $25.99) by Douglas Preston, released January 5, 2010, from Forge.
Treasure beneath Our Feet
By Kristin Sevick, Associate Editor
You may not have heard much about the Brooklyn Museum—it often gets second billing to its older and more famous cousin, Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the Brooklyn Museum should not be discounted. Opened in 1897, it is one of the largest art institutions in the world, with breathtaking exhibits from what is arguably one of the best collections of Egyptian artifacts in the US to the current (and very cool) contemporary photography exhibit, Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present.
All of the exhibits—from the Assyrian Reliefs to the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art—are exceptional. As the editor of C. J. Henderson’s Brooklyn Knight, an urban fantasy set in part in the Brooklyn Museum, I’ve enjoyed both physical and fictional tours of this wonderful museum, its public exhibits, and the rest of its permanent collection—hiding somewhere in the museum’s 560,000 square feet.
“What is meant by the term ‘permanent collections’?” asks the museum’s FAQ . The thought-provoking answer: “The Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collections number around one million objects…but only a fraction of these works can be on display at any given time. Collections are rotated in the permanent collection galleries, but there are always many works in the storeroom.”
On the fifth floor of the museum, The Luce Center for American Art has a mind-blowing Visible Storage Study Center exhibit. According to the museum’s website, there are 350 works on view in the nearby American Identities exhibition and 2,000 (out of many more thousands) pieces in the Visible Storage Study Center collection. Instead of a closed storeroom, these objects are arranged in a sort of huge, transparent walk-in closet full of shelving and display racks.
While the Visible Storage Study Center offers some sense of the museum’s hidden treasures, it’s still hard to grasp the idea that hundreds of thousands of significant objects are kept tantalizingly nearby, in closed rooms or underground storage areas. Pieces of lost cities have been regulated to basements; artifacts once used in ancient rites of sorcery sit on shelves. It’s an alluring and somewhat haunting concept—the wisdom of the past and the beauty of the present, hidden under our feet.
In Brooklyn Knight, C.J. Henderson has created the ultimate tour guide to these mystical treasures, able to pass behind the worlds of open exhibits and secret storage rooms: Professor Piers Knight. Knight, New York City’s answer to Indiana Jones, is an esteemed curator of the Brooklyn Museum and an expert on lost civilizations and arcane cultures. Of course, there is a twist—Knight is not only a scholar in areas of ancient mysticism, but is secretly proficient in potentially dangerous spells and the magical uses of many of the ancient objects available at his fingertips.
Wandering through the museum’s halls, it’s fun to imagine the mystical powers the ancient artifacts might hold. But in the dark of night, these imaginings can take a darker turn…what if one of these objects holds the key to our world’s survival? Good thing Professor Knight knows his way around a museum basement….
Brooklyn Knight (978-0-7653-2083-4; $14.99) is available from Tor this January. C. J. Henderson can be found at cjhenderson.com.
Behind the Boiler
By Alexander Jablokov
My favorite writing space in my life was a tiny room in my apartment, above the porch, just big enough for a desk and a couple of bookshelves. It was cold in the winter and hot in the summer, but it had great light and felt completely separate from the world.
Of course, at that time, I had a life kind of like that office, clean and neat and organized. I’d saved enough money to take some time off and make it as a writer.
I won’t say I failed (five novels and one short story collection), but I can’t claim to have made it big either. I got married, had children, went back to work...and went through a dry spell in my writing. It was a choice I made freely, because usually life just shows up and saying “But I’m writing!” to that knock on the door can be a mistake.
Plus, a family is a really convenient excuse for not getting writing done, though they seldom enjoy being told that.
But as the kids have gotten older and more easily neglected, I’ve had some time. I took the old desk left over from that nice well-lit office (really a door on two filing cabinets) and set it up behind the boiler in my basement. I separated myself from the washer/dryer and the play area with bookshelves, and taped geological maps of the Southwest on the walls. I set up a Writer user on my computer that has all non-writing programs blocked and has no internet access.
I didn’t quit my day job, and, in fact, worked hard to succeed at it. But, early in the mornings before going to work, and during any spare weekend time, I started writing Brain Thief.
Now, more than ten years later, Brain Thief is finally being published.
Here is what I have learned from this experience:
- It’s the production on your worst day that determines your overall production, not your production on your best day. A succession of days with nothing written can eat any number of days with many words written, like the seven lean years devouring the seven fat years in the story of Joseph.
- I write less than I used to, but can’t delude myself into thinking I would write twice or three times as much if I had all day to do it. I spend 23 hours looking forward to that one hour in the morning, and do my best to make it count.
- No one wants to listen to you whine about how your desk is behind the boiler in your basement, because if that’s as romantic as your struggle gets, you can just get back in line.
- People at your day job may find it interesting that you also write, but they won’t cut you any slack because of it (even if your desk is behind...etc.) They actually only care about the work you do for them. So you should do it as well and as honestly as you can.
- Take a look around yourself at your day job. This is what most people do all day. Many of them are devoted to their work. All human passions eventually surface in the workplace. Shouldn’t something in your writing reflect all that? Just don’t try to caricature your ex-boss as a world-ransoming supervillain. Unless that was your organization’s actual line of work and her actual job title, in which case you don’t need advice from me.
Brain Thief (0-7653-2200-5; $24.99) is available from Tor this January. Alexander Jablokov can be found at ajablokov.com.