‘Meg’ Bites Back: Steve Alten vs. Richard Ellis


To the Editor:

As a first-time novelist, I have been forewarned to ignore the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes time for critics to review my work. I do not write to please literary critics; I write to please readers who just want to enjoy the act of escaping in an action-packed commercial novel. But after reading Ellis’ castigation of “Meg” (Book Review, July 20), I felt a response was in order.

Ellis, who authored “The Great White Shark,” vehemently attacks everything from the title of the book to my research, which depicts “sharks and whales behaving like unknown animals from the planet Zargon. . . .” Funny, I don’t remember the planet Zargon being mentioned in Ellis’ book, which was a key source of information regarding the Megalodon’s behavior. I do remember reading in Ellis’ work that an 18- to 20-foot great white shark’s ampullae of Lorenzini is sensitive enough to “detect an electrical field distributed throughout a 1,000-mile-long copper wire hooked up to a size D flashlight battery.” Now, for some reason, Ellis feels that a 60-foot Megalodon should be deficient in this area.

He states that “only in Alten’s topsy-turvy world can there be a situation where warmer water remains below a colder water” and conveniently misses the point. Hydrothermal vents continuously pump superheated 600- to 700-degree Fahrenheit water into the trench, more than sufficient to maintain the warm layer I describe. Furthermore, I would be happy to share with the book reviewer current research on plate tectonics and ocean climates which indicates that, prior to the last ice age, warmer currents heavily laden with salt ran beneath colder surface waters. (Guess this also violates Ellis’ laws of physics.) Superheated hydrothermal waters contain high quantities of minerals, making these waters heavier than the colder, lighter waters above. It was only a short time ago that scientists believed life could not exist without light. On July 15, the New York Times quotes Dr. Lindsay Parson, a geophysicist at Southampton Oceanography Center as saying, “ . . . we’ve seen that plumes from these hydrothermal systems rise about 200 meters off the bottom and then they start to spread out . . . out like smoke from a factory chimney.” This is almost exactly how I describe the Mariana Trench on page 77 of “Meg,” published long before this new discovery! And keep in mind, since we’ve never even explored the Mariana Trench, who knows what life forms could potentially be down there, including Megalodons?


What really irks me, though, is that the reviewer quotes numerous mistakes from the novel, mistakes which exist only in his advance reading copy. Give me a break! For readers unaware of what advance reading copies are, ARCs are typically laced with mistakes; after all, these copies are unedited manuscripts printed only for book dealers and sales reps. The “Meg” advance reading copy (“any quotes must be checked against finished copy”) was issued a full eight months prior to the release of the hardback. Nevertheless, Ellis’ critique mentions ghosts and mistakes, none of which show up in the hardback sold to the general public. Ellis, an author himself, should know better. Was no one professional enough to bother checking that the “empty coffee pot” was filled?

Of special interest to the many readers who enjoyed “Meg” and have written to express their enthusiasm may be a quote from Ellis’ own book. In this passage regarding Megalodons, Ellis writes, “All the evidence seems to point to their [Megs] fairly recent disappearance . . . because we need mysteries--and because the sea so readily supplies them--Megalodon will remain the be^te noire of the monster hunters.” Despite this provocative comment of his own, almost half of his review of “Meg” was devoted to his own outrage that I, as one of his readers, would dare to even pen the book, that I was fortunate enough to have my first novel so well published and promoted. But isn’t this the very goal that all writers dream about?

I suggest Ellis simply accept “Meg” for what it is, a fun, action-packed novel. As a first-timer, I take constructive criticism seriously because I endeavor to become a better writer. Perhaps the next time Ellis is given the opportunity to critique a new author, he will have at least the kindness to respond to the published version of the book.

Steve Alten, Boca Raton, Florida


Richard Ellis replies:

Alten seems to believe that it was his job to write whatever came into his head and that his sharp-eyed editors would correct his mistakes. I wonder how all those strange sentences got into the manuscript in the first place. Does Alten think that type is set by hand these days and that malicious typesetter-gremlins inserted the errors of fact, confused biology and ridiculous technology? (Lucky for him, they filled the “empty” coffee pot.) Are we to believe that the lovely phrase “decapitated at the knees” (found in the advance copy but not in the final published version), is a typesetting error, or did Alten write that himself?

It is true that all those scary phrases (“Don’t even think about going in the water”) are missing from the published version, but even though the advance copies were intended only for sales reps and reviewers, they exist. You cannot recall them because they are full of “ghosts” (whatever they are) and mistakes. (Typos are another matter altogether.) People read these things, Steve. If you didn’t want anyone to read “decapitated at the knees,” you shouldn’t have written it.

It would be tiresome to again discuss the mistakes in “Meg”; after all, the author made them in the first place, and accusing me of reading the wrong version of his book seems a poor defense indeed. Rather, let me address the one subject that seems to have many people confused--none more than Alten himself.


For the record, I am working now from the hardcover published version of “Meg.” On page 11, we read that the giant shark was living in the “tropical bottom layer” of the Mariana Trench, “the water layer above the warm layer is near freezing. The Meg could never survive the transition through six miles of icy water in order to survive.” (That the shark manages this “transition” by swimming through six miles of warm blood will not be discussed here.)

In my review, I wrote that “only in Alten’s topsy-turvy world could there be a situation where warmer water remains below colder water.” Alten defends this physio-comical inversion by writing, “Hydrothermal vents continuously pump superheated 600- to 700-degree Fahrenheit water into the trench, more than sufficient to maintain the warm layer I describe.”

No they don’t, Steve, because there aren’t any hydrothermal vents in the deep trenches. Putting a convenient hydrothermal vent in the Mariana Trench is the sort of irresponsible act that Alten employs in his pathetic effort to inject a little verisimilitude into his otherwise implausible tales. (Another possibility is that he reads as poorly as he writes and couldn’t tell the difference in all the fancy reference books he used.)

The New York Times story about the discovery of a new vent field in the Atlantic does nothing to validate his misconstructions. In the Times article, Dr. Lindsay Parson says, “ . . . plumes from these hydrothermal systems rise about 200 meters off the bottom and then they start to spread out where they become neutrally buoyant.” In other words, the heated water from hydrothermal vents rises and disperses. How Alten can read that as a warm layer that remains on the bottom is a mystery to me.

Regardless of what the warm water would do, however, Alten confuses deep trenches with hydrothermal vents. The two are completely different and are not found in the same location. The trenches are deep, V-shaped canyons, usually with a flat bottom that results from sedimentary fill. Rather than being sources of heated water, the trenches are, probably because of the thick layer of sediment, cooler than the areas immediately surrounding them.

The rift zones are located along submerged volcanic ridges and have nothing whatever to do with the deep trenches. The vents pump superheated water into the water column, which, because it is spewed out under great pressure, disperses and rises. It does not sit in a trench, because the hydrothermal vents that Alten claims to have read so much about (not, I’m happy to say, in my book “Great White Shark”; I would hate to be held responsible for that too), are not in the trenches.

I wrote that Alten’s “sharks and whales behave like unknown animals from the planet Zarkon” (not Zargon), and he said that he didn’t remember my mentioning the planet Zargon in my book, the “key source of information regarding the Megalodon’s behavior.” Thanks for the plug, Steve, but I don’t know anything about Megalodon’s “behavior,” and neither does anybody else. We can speculate that it was a large-prey predator--it certainly had the requisite equipment--but the only thing we know for sure is that it is extinct. In his letter, Alten writes, “Since we’ve never even explored the Mariana Trench, who knows what life forms could be potentially down there, including Megalodons.” We haven’t done that much exploration of the moon or Mars, either, Steve. Do you think there might be Megs there too?

Alten seems to believe that a “first-time novelist” who had received an enormous amount of money ought to be immune from criticism (“I suggest that Ellis simply accept ‘Meg’ for what it is, a fun, action-packed novel”), as if the combination of innocence and megabucks excuses sloppy writing and dumb plotting, or worse, that everybody ought to love the book. What are a few minor mistakes, anyway, when compared to a movie deal? (Besides, if the critics were so smart, they’d be writing million-dollar novels themselves, not worrying about the stupid difference between vents and trenches.)

It is certainly Alten’s prerogative as a writer of fiction to invent anything that takes his fancy; if he wants to include a 60-foot-long bioluminescent shark, a heat-trapping trench seven miles down or even a man who slices his way out of a shark from the inside, I wish him the commercial success that he insists is “the very goal that all writers dream about.” I was upset (but hardly “outraged”) by his sloppy writing and his clumsy attempts at “science,” but it is far more distressing to read his defenses of these inadequacies, as when he tries to rationalize his erroneous interpretation of the cold water/warm water conundrum, or worse, when he suggests that Carcharodon megalodon exists today. To infer that there are much bigger and nastier sharks than those in “Jaws” swimming around is the cheapest sort of sensationalism, and--if possible--makes his letter worse than his book.