When a nuclear submarine in the Caribbean encounters anomalies with its GPS system, John Clay, a naval investigator is called in to figure out what happened.
At the same time, Alison Shaw, a marine biologist and her small team of dedicated scientists achieve a breakthrough in their attempt to communicate with dolphins.
Eventually the U.S. Navy discovers an artifact on the bottom of the ocean that seems to destabilize the geological balance of the entire planet. That’s when the U.S. government gets involved, and things go sideways very quickly.
Breakthrough is Grumley’s debut novel and the first of a “series” of novels. It’s a science fiction techno-thriller, where the science fiction is very light and superficial, and the thriller part is pretty standard and fairly bland U.S. government intrigue stuff.
There are two areas that interested me specifically, and I want to discuss them.
Spoiler Warning: the following contains minor spoilers which will not impact your enjoyment of the novel, but it is my policy to warn about spoilers.
Dolphin Intelligence and Language
The first area has to do with dolphin intelligence and language. This subject has always been one of deep interest to me, and I have literally read dozens of books on the subject. Search for the keyword “dolphin” on this blog and find some of my thoughts on it. Also, select “cetaceans” in the Select a Category dropdown to the right, and you’ll find a lot of related posts.
In this story, a team of researchers has used an IBM artificial intelligence engine to decode a dolphin vocabulary, and after the initial Hello, Yes and No words are discovered, it starts building very quickly. Humans type into the computer, or speak to a voice recognition system, and the system translates the word to a set of dolphin clicks and whistles. When dolphins whistle, the computer detects the words, looks them up in the vocabulary, and speaks them. Voilà, you have a conversation with a dolphin.
This concept is quite well developed in this story, except for the strange beginning, where the supposed breakthrough occurs, and I could not figure out what exactly it was. Supposedly the team had recorded dolphin sounds for years, and they were finally starting to interpret them. There was this huge press conference announcing that they were starting that. I just could not figure out what the breakthrough was, other than they had decided that they would stop collecting sounds and start interpreting them.
I was personally always interested in this field, and I have often had regrets that I didn’t start in this field of research early in my career as a computer programmer. My life might have been very different indeed. Of course, maybe not as successful, since in all those years, unlike in this book, we have NOT yet cracked the code and been successful communicating with the aliens right here on our planet, with our own DNA.
Definition: In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.
In this story – and here is the spoiler – there are aliens living on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea in air bubbles. How they got there and what they are doing there is not relevant for my point so I won’t elaborate here.
However, the aliens, although they come from another planet around another star, are human, indistinguishable from us. The author explains that convergent evolution will produce identical results even in wildly different environments, as long as the building blocks of nature are the same. We are all “stardust” and made from the same raw materials that heavy elements resulting from supernovae. So the same amino acids seeded many different worlds around many different stars, and the crowning result would be — humans.
That’s where the story lost me. No only were the aliens that evolved on another planet in a different stellar system light years away human, they spoke American English! This was just so out of the realm of feasibility, the book came apart for me at that time.
Here is a novel, that is partly built on the concept of the challenges of decoding a language of an alien being (in this case a dolphin) and how it took decades of work to make any measurable progress, and then that same novel brings in alien humans that conveniently speak English and are undetected in our social environment.
Regardless of those flaws, I enjoyed the book, I found the concept of language translation intriguing and entertaining, and I read all the way to the end.
3 thoughts on “Book Review: Breakthrough – by Michael C. Grumley”
love this book,,,didn’t want to put it down
There’s wishful thinking (novels) and then there’s history, sometimes made up to cover true events beyond belief. Check out “The Language of Space” by Dr. John Weilgart; and its related website “https://auilanguage.org”.
Interesting reference. Looks like the 1974 book is only available in paperback for $85 each, if you can find it. Thanks for the reference and the website link.