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Book Review: Plague Year by Jeff Carlson

* Genre: Apocalyptic Fiction, Hard SF
* ISBN: 044101514X
* ISBN-13: 9780441015146
* Format: Paperback, 304pp
* Publisher: Ace Books
* Pub. Date: July 2007
* Author Website (with excerpts and live action book trailer)

Plague Year, by Jeff Carlson, is the type of book that would translate very well in and action/thriller movie. Characters never stand still, political intrigue abounds, and the characters face almost certain death every time they turn around. Written in two perspectives, the novel relates the story of what happens to Earth and humanity after a nanotech plague kills every mammal living below 10,000 feet of elevation. Set only a few months into the first year after the plague of tiny machines hit, the story is written as first person accounts from two primary characters.

The first, and most interesting, is Cam, a Hispanic ski bum who manages to make it to a small outcropping barely above ten thousand feet in California, not far from the supposed epicenter of the plague. Plague Year begins with his story, and what he and his small band of survivors must do to survive. They immediacy of their survival is the strong hook that author Jeff Carlson uses to lure the reader in. From that point, the story fascinates so much; you can’t help but read this horrifying story of man-made apocalypse. Cam is a survivor, a man on the front lines of the plague and his eyes relay to the reader the immediacy and near futility of survival on what amounts to almost barren rock.

Ruth is a nanotech scientist stuck in the International Space Station doing her very best to study the plague and find a cure. Unlike Cam, who must suffer many indignities, she is a privileged person, naive about the horrors occurring down on Earth. Her awakening, later in the novel, is a key plot twist. Her selfishness and narcissism can be grating at times on the reader, but Carlson doesn’t intend for us to like her, at least not at first. Still, it will fit the reader’s stereotype of the lab rat genius who sees nothing but their next experiment. When she acts out of character later in the novel, it becomes a great moment of hope.

These two perspectives provide two separate plot lines that finally converge into the final solution to the nanotech plague.

The story moves very quickly, and this short novel can easily be read in one or two nights. Cam’s heroism in the face of self-loathing is amazing to watch. Ruth’s tirelessness in searching for cure is inspiring, and her naiveté grounds the reader in our own present day complacency. These two characters, though they don’t grow awful much beyond these motivations, will resonate deeply. That lack of growth is one of the weaknesses of the story. The characters do a great deal of introspection, but Carlson fails to move them beyond that introspection to a permanent change of character, making it easy for a reader to think them flat. They are not, but their changes are very subtle, more a bringing out of hidden strengths than any great change in personality.

The plot basics are not truly original. Any moviegoer or reader familiar with I Am Legend will see a lot of elements that are very similar, even to the point of the scientist-become-hero theme. But a similar theme is no crime, and Carlson does move the story in a different direction from its predecessor.

Readers may also notice a similarity to the TV show Lost in that Carlson explains the isolation of being stuck on a mountaintop with much the same motivations. One primary character even shares a name and personality with Lost’s Sawyer. But these similarities to what has come before could be seen as strengths, in that readers who enjoyed either I Am Legend or Lost is likely to enjoy Plague Year for its similar themes and character types.

Readers who are offended by casual sex (a threesome exists at the beginning of the novel) and some crude thinking on the part of the characters may also wish to avoid this tale.

Carlson’s writing can sometimes seem a bit choppy, causing faster readers to easily miss important details. Slower readers will be at an advantage in reading this novel. More than once I got confused as to what had just happened, but I think that was due more to my reading pace than Carlson’s writing per se. I just skipped over a detail in my speed. But the fact that I was reading it quickly points to the avidness and voraciousness with which I was enjoying it, so what initially seemed a detriment to me became a strength of the novel as I thought about it later.

The story is good, even garnering Carlson a nomination for this year’s John W. Campbell award. Unfortunately, he was ineligible due to previously published short stories, but that says a lot for his strong writing skills. I think Plague Year is a unique take on the old apocalyptic fiction trope, full of the hard science of nanotech, and it will appeal to a broad audience.

It is highly entertaining, and I can say that I plan to read the stand-alone/sequel, Plague War very soon. If you like apocalyptic fiction, Plague Year is a must-buy.