At some point while reading thriller author Matthew Reilly’s new book The Great Zoo of China, you start to think it’s a departure for him. After all the Raiders of the Lost Ark-inspired ancient artefacts and boobytrapped hidden cities of the Six Sacred Stones and Five Greatest Warriors series, The Great Zoo of China is much more of a monster mash.
But after awhile, after reading about said monsters throwing petrol tankers at people fleeing in cars and battling jet fighters in the skies, you realise he’s still concerned with – as he puts it when we talked to the 40-year-old bestseller on the phone from his Sydney home – ‘being fast and furious and giving people a high tech adventure’.
But something you don’t realise about Reilly’s work is that the urgent pacing and whiplash action is augmented by contemporary themes. Almost every industry and country is being affected by China’s rise as a superpower, and it was something he delved into when travelling there to research the book.
“It’s funny, when you write a book that’s so out there it still has to be grounded in a geopolitical reality,” Reilly thinks. “People are just interested in China now and I like to have my finger on the pulse.”
After taking the pulse of modern China, Reilly touched on one of the most insightful dimensions of what’s been called the ‘China Dream’, a curious aspect of the country’s incredible rise.
“I went on a boat trip down the Yangtse River heading toward the Three Gorges dam when I got chatting with a Canadian fellow who worked on the dam,” he says. “I asked what it was like and he said it was absolutely painful. Nobody will make a decision, they’ll only get the foreign consultants to make the decision. He got so tired of saying ‘you can do A or B and they said ‘what would you do?’.”
It belies a curiously enduring lack of confidence despite awe-inspiring engineering manpower and political will (it’s said China can build a whole city in a single month). But the authorities The Great Zoo of China nevertheless unveil a project that’s been in development for decades, and when it all goes wrong as soon as it’s ready to reveal to the world, you’ll be reminded of another cultural touchstone.
“Anyone who’s heard me speak knows Jurassic Park is the book that inspired me to be a novelist,” Reilly says. “As soon as you put large reptillian creatures in an enclosure people will make a comparison.”
It makes you wonder if the book is a conscious (or not so conscious) homage to Michael Crichton, who wrote the dinosaur thriller that became the smash Steven Spielberg movie and remains Reilly’s favourite author.
“In a way everything I’ve done is an homage to Michael Crichton,” he says. “Dinosaurs were real and Crichton was brilliant recreating them with DNA. What I’ve done is taken a mythological creature and had even more fun with it. I knew there’d be comparisons but I’m confident my story is completely different.”
Which bring us to the central question about the monster in question. They’re revealed to the characters in a flourish after several chapters that really build up the anticipation, and Reilly says he considered calling the book The Great [insert name of monster here] Zoo of China.
It’s not too much of a mystery when you see the image on the book’s Australian cover, but it still feels a little bit wrong to spoil the big reveal before you read it for yourself. And knowing Reilly’s following, many will.