When a book has an opening sentence like "They ate Jorgensen first," you know it isn't gonna dick around. That's a sentence all on its own that will tell you whether or not Plague Year is the book for you. You will respond to it in one of a few ways. You might go "Eww!" and pitch the book in the bin, or you might go "Eww!" and keep reading feverishly, pausing only for meals and/or bathroom breaks. In which case you'd take the book along. You might even be reminded, as I was, of that Monty Python sketch where all the shipwrecked sailors in the lifeboat get into an argument over whom they want to eat first.
Plague Year is exactly the kind of no-holds-barred escapist thriller you would hope any book with that title would be. Jeff Carlson's gripping debut is kind of like Blood Music meets The Hot Zone. It might also remind some readers of the first third of Stephen King's The Stand, specifically those scenes involving the spread of the Captain Trips plague, before King ruined the whole thing with ten billion words of narcotizing exposition and eschatological gobbledygook. Carlson's plague is out-of-control nanotech that not only kills the cancer cells it was designed for, but every other kind of cell it can find in a warm-blooded organism for good measure. As it spreads with bloodcurdling speed across the globe, groups of desperate survivors huddle at high altitudes, since the nano itself doesn't survive at over 10,000 feet elevation.
Our protagonists are Cam Najarro, a Latino college ski bum who manages to find refuge on a California mountaintop; Albert Sawyer, another refugee whom Cam begins to suspect knows a thing or two about the plague he isn't letting on; and Ruth Ann Goldman, a hotshot researcher who happens to be aboard the International Space Station when the outbreak occurs, and who is convinced she can develop a reagent if only she can get back down to Earth without delay.
Having just come off one of the most powerful post-apocalyptic sagas I've read in recent memory, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, I confess to finding the opening scenes of Plague Year — those which are more character- than plot-driven — its most engrossing and believable. Carlson's portrayal of the depths to which plague survivors must sink simply to survive is harrowing, grisly, and distressingly convincing. Cam and the other stragglers don't wait for the weakest among them to die naturally before cannibalizing them. They are driven by desperation to killing them outright. Yet though they've been reduced to little more than wild animals to satiate their hunger, they still cling to the rituals and artifacts of civilization, with certain groups breaking off into factions and absurdly taking votes on life or death matters.
Things change on Cam's mountaintop when a survivor from another group improbably makes it through the sub-10K plague zone alone. (The plague doesn't kill you at once, but begins to eat you away painfully in bits.) He insists his group has more people and more food, and better odds for survival. Is this true, or just a lie to round up more fresh meat — a "cattle drive," in Sawyer's disturbing terms? Whatever the case, Cam, Sawyer, and most of the group head off to an uncertain fate, where both the plague and their own intergroup conflicts could spell disaster in seconds.
For most of Plague Year's first hundred pages, these scenes dominate. And they're so strong that I was a tiny bit disappointed when Ruth's story thread took over, and the book settled into more of a formulaic disaster-novel groove, replete with such stereotyped characters as the ideologically-obsessed politician who doesn't want to stop the plague but harness it as a WMD. Still, Carlson knows how to do the hard-SFnal stuff right, and in addition to providing a believable description of the nanotech itself, he keeps the action in fifth gear throughout. There are a number of scenes — a space shuttle landing on a freeway, a desperate raid into the ruins of Sacramento to find the lab where the nano originated — that'll be instant Viagra to any film producer who stumbles across this book. In its best scenes Plague Year offers the most pure adrenaline you'll experience in a novel all year.
Despite minor quibbles — like a climax you pretty much expect — I think Plague Year has what it takes to be enormously popular, and perhaps earn Carlson strong consideration for a Campbell Award. I'll also say that while the ending does leave things open for a possible sequel, I hope Carlson resists the urge. (Of course he's not, but it wouldn't be the first vain hope I've ever entertained.) The book has a resolution that is, to me, satisfying precisely because it still leaves much open-ended. When civilization itself has collapsed, there's no one magic bullet that will solve every problem all at once. Carlson knows this, I'm sure, and he's already proven himself a gutsy writer who won't flinch at the worst horrors life can throw at you. I hope he won't plague us now by becoming too conventional.