This being Cipher Mysteries, I try to read a fair bit of mysterious cipher-related stuff along the way, both non-fiction and fiction. Yet just as you’d expect, most cipher mystery fiction tends more to the ‘airport novel’ end of the spectrum than the ‘lit-rit-cher’ end. Which pleasantly brings to mind (well, to my mind, at least) Elvis Costello’s “God’s Comic” as he finally meets his Maker:-

So there He was on a water-bed
Drinking a cola of a mystery brand
Reading an airport novelette
Listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s “Requiem”

Nicely pitched scansion, and perhaps even more richly ironic if the airport novelette in question happened to have one of those interminably Byzantine two-millennia-long-conspiracy-to-hide-the-truth-about-Jesus’-non-death-on-the-cross plotlines we’re so waerily familiar with now. But I digress!

Wearing my book publisher hat, I’d say you can divide cipher mystery airport novel writers into three quite distinct camps:-

  1. The Rack Pack. People who write strings of pacy, mostly character-driven novels but who scout around for interesting historical stuff to build their fantastical plotting and obscure conspiracies around. (These books tend to suffer from “slabs”, i.e. lumps of undigested Wikipedia-style research littering the text, and to rely heavily on secondary characters who ‘just happen’ to be world-renowned Harvard Professors of Obscure Historical Linguistics etc. They can also be quite hard to tell apart).
  2. Domain Experts. People who happen to be experts in some technical / research field and fall victim to the questionable notion that a particular historical mystery that happens to overlap their field would make an amazing basis for a novel, but then decide to write that book. I mean, how hard can it be? (These books tend to suffer from inexpert plotting, clunky characterization, and non-credible relationships between characters. But at least most of the technical details are right).
  3. Wannabe Screenwriters. People who are terrifically personally ambitious and have a deep love of film, and who see the airport novel medium as a great way to express their high-octane visual imagination, while also giving themselves an outside chance of their books’ being optioned for a Major Motion Picture. (These books tend to be bad on just about every level you can name, but are probably a terrifically good read if you’re the kind of person who has a copy of “Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft” in your toilet).

All of which is a fairly longwinded way of introducing David Gibbins’ (2005) novel “Atlantis”. From the moment you read that the author “has worked in underwater archaeology all his professional life” and that “[this] is his first novel“, you can be pretty sure that this is going to fall squarely into Camp #2 territory.

The cipher connection isn’t hard to work out: the front cover has a gold-embossed representation of something not unlike the Phaistos Disk, though it has to be said that the shapes are upside-down (relative to the real Phaistos Disk) and in a quite different order, while a few other plausible-looking pictogram-style shapes have been added to the mix. Though that’s OK, because these differences are part of the story (which kicks off with a second Phaistos Disk being discovered in an ancient shipwreck, but this time it’s made of gold).

Commendably, the spine of the book has one of the Phaistos Disc symbols (which Gibbins has both as “outstretched eagle god” and as the sign of “Atlantis”, though note that he requires you rotate it 90 degrees to see it even slightly as a bird), making it the only cipher novel I know of with a single genuine historical cipher mystery character shape as its central motif. Please tell me if there’s another one!

There’s actually a bit of literature on this shape, which is #21 in Sir Arthur Evans’ much-noted list of the disk’s pictograms. Here are some of the better-known theories about it proposed over the years:-

  • Comb (Godart, 1995)
  • Weaving comb (Dettmer, 1989)
  • Hoe or rake (Aartun, 1992)
  • Palace floor-plan (not sure who suggested this?)
  • Swedish rock carvings of a team of plowing oxen (Woudhuizen, !?!?!?!?)

More usefully, Balistier (2000) notes that Ingo Pini (1970) pointed out that this particular pictogram very likely has Minoan origins, as evidenced by the similarities between it and a five-toothed comb design found on clay fragment HM 992 (also found at Phaistos, and dating to the 18th century BC).  And here it is:-


Clay fragment HM 1992: the five-pronged comb-like shape is on the left

 This striking visual parallel is often cited as proof of the Phaistos Disk’s authenticity, with the only small problem being that it may well be that Luigi Pernier ‘excavated’ them both… but that’s another story entirely.

Anyway, does Gibbins manage to save himself from falling into all the Domain Expert airport novel traps? Actually… no. And what’s worse, from the minute the protagonist Jack Howard (“unlikely scion of one of England’s most ancient families“, p.13) makes “a mental note to email the image to Professor James Dillen, his old mentor at Cambridge University and the world’s leading authority on the ancient scripts of Greece” (p.16), it’s abundantly clear that Gibbins has drunk too deeply from the Rack Pack’s well of clichés. Moreover, from the breathless military helicopter fetishism and Wired editorialese, he has dipped his bucket into the Wannabe Screenwriters’ gadget-strewn watering hole more than a few times as well.

All of which superficial nonsense I could actual forgive Gibbins for (it is, after all, an airport novel, and many top-tier writers have fallen into these same traps over the years). However (and sorry if this is a spoiler) the point near the end where Jack Howard unilaterally fires a nuclear warhead onto the bad guys’ hi-tech hide-out is just not OK by me. Yes, they killed his friends, etc etc: but a nuclear warhead? Really? Really??

It’s at this point the alert reader stops to wonder whether the whole book is some kind of high-camp “The Producers” so-bad-it’s-good joke, or some knowing Alan Sokal hoax on the airport novel genre, or perhaps even some Umberto Eco-esque prolonged literary inversion. Though these all sound fairly unbelievable, the alternative – that the author really thinks that this kind of stuff is OK – is so much worse that it’s not really conceivable. And once you’ve ruled out the impossible…

12 thoughts on “Review of David Gibbins’ “Atlantis”…

  1. Dennis on March 13, 2010 at 7:15 am said:

    Hi Nick! I do love wonderfully snide reviews. And the Hey Phaistos! plague in the bargain!

    I do wish this fellow had come up with a better novel involving the Phaistos Disk, since after all, Phaistos Disk crankery is even more rife than VMs crankery. I call your attention to this delightful collection of Phaistos Disk hypotheses:

    Phaistos Disk Decipherment update

    As for his nuclear warhead, was it a nuclear isomer device? No, that’s not a typo!


  2. Dennis: I was just disappointed on so many levels it was too hard to bear. Thanks for the link!

  3. Diane on March 13, 2010 at 4:03 pm said:

    I read a little book years ago – sorry I don’t recall the author – but he suggested that it was a calendar, akin to the “Works and Days”, linking agricultural activities to the star of that season.

    I think the head with the helmet was Orion, and the thing shaped like a bronze ingot/bull’s hide was taurus. If anyone’s interested, I’ll try to hunt up the reference.

    Why do people keep supposing that anything we don’t understand is meant to be a deep, dark mystery? I’ll never understand that attitude… but on second thoughts, maybe I’m not meant to 🙂

    Nick, I have to say your posts are my favourite bed-time reading. Its just 3am here, and I’m finished for the day.

    PS – the marvellous Spice Page run by Gernot Katzer now allows you to search by botanical name.
    He says:
    “If you activate language
    selection in the large Alphabetical Index, you are presented a textbox
    that acceps botanical names (truncation is supported, species name is
    optional). Only those spices conforming to the name(s) entered will be
    and adds that its better to use a browser other than Internet explorer if possible.


  4. Diane on March 13, 2010 at 4:12 pm said:

    PS On the theme of Atlantis, and Kircher’s map of it, and thus Kircher’s zodiac (which is sort of related to the mention of the Phaistos Disk) – I liked the way some of Kirscher’s figures are dressed like those on the astronomo-logical tabula found at Grand, especially since the latter hadn’t been discovered then. Opinion seems to be that the patterning for the costumes on figures in the latter is Hittite.

  5. Diane on March 14, 2010 at 3:18 pm said:

    Never rains but it pours.

    Yesterday the Phaistos disk is mentioned.

    Today I turn to an old article in my files… and lo! one of its illustrations seems to show Phaistos disk symbols.

    Turns out theyre Hittite-related, from Urartu.

    And wiki kindly helps out, by having put up an article on the script, with pronunciations.

    Move over Dan Brown: if synchoncitity were pennies I’d have won the lottery. And that’s even if there’s no relationship between the scripts.

    Anyone who cares to see if the Phaistos disk is written in Luwian, or Luwian Hittite, using these Anatolian heiroglyphs, they’re welcome. I’ve just checked and the article is also online.

    Orhan Aytug Tasyurek, “The Urartian Bronze Hoard from Giyimli“, in the journal EXPEDITION, Summer 1977, pp.12-20. (Illustration p. 12).

    Wikipedia article “Anatolian hieroglyphs“.


  6. Diane: Luwian, eh? Here’s a link to a page with a reasonably clear set of Luwian hieroglyphs, both syllabograms and logograms. Not sure if I can even see one solid match between these and the Phaistos Disk’s pictograms, please tell me what I’m missing?

  7. Diane on July 21, 2010 at 1:01 pm said:

    Sorry, I didn’t return to see this response.
    But today I realised that Kircher’s very circumstantial map of “Atlantis” may be based on oen of the islands of the Antilles, so thought it a snippet worth adding to your file on Kircher.

    1516 – Their name was given the Antilles by the historian, Peter Martyr d’Anghera, a native of Italy who was well received at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, and who became in due time Bishop of Jamaica.

    His work entitled De Orbe Novo, published in 1516, contained the first account of the discovery, or re-discovery, of America, and the word “Antilles” has reference to a supposed island, or submerged continent, in those regions, marked on very early charts as Antiglia.

    (The information has been repeated so often that, I think it hardly requires citation.)

  8. Diane on July 21, 2010 at 1:02 pm said:

    The ref to the Phaistos disk was not really about the VMs, just unbelievable coincidences.

  9. marco guido corsini on July 27, 2010 at 7:34 am said:

    my Phaistos Disk translation is on

    best wishes, dr. Marco Guido Corsini

  10. marco guido corsini on August 3, 2010 at 2:42 pm said:

    the sign You are speaking of i the front of egyptian serekh, palace, Greek of the Phaistos Disk: LARissa, citadel. Marco Guido Corsini

  11. o1derfull1 on January 18, 2011 at 10:14 pm said:

    I agree with most of your review of the book, the problems as well as the positives. However, just to clarify, it wasn’t a nuclear missile that took out Aslan’s terrorist hide-out. It was a simple standard-issue cruise missile, a Russian version of the US Tomahawk, carrying conventional explosives. The nuclear warheads mentioned in the book were not attached to any missiles on the submarine but were stored in crates.

  12. o1derfull1: thanks very much for your comment! I’ll see if I can fix the error over the next few days…

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