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Publisher: Bluejack

June, 2008 : Review:

Infected, by Scott Sigler

By Scott Sigler
Crown, 2008, 352 pp.
ISBN 0307406105

It may sound like a cliché, but I really didn't expect to like this novel. Not because of the author or the subject matter, but because of all the hoopla surrounding it. Scott Sigler got a lot of attention when his first novel Earthcore became the first novel to be podcast-only, and he shortly followed it up with another (Ancestor), then another (Infection), another (The Rookie), and is currently podcasting yet a fifth (Nocturnal) on his website. Almost from the beginning, he's made waves with the podcasts and gained quite a following—more than 10,000 subscribers for Earthcore, and it's only gone uphill from there. Hoopla and I don't mix well—for instance, I avoided Buffy the Vampire Slayer until after it was over because all the uproar annoyed me. Of course, now I love it.

But this isn't about the podcasts, it's about Scott Sigler's novel Infected (originally podcast as Infection). Crown Books picked it up recently, and it's now been issued as a hardcover, released in April. Small wonder they decided to publish it with all the buzz surrounding it, but I'll admit that it was this same buzz that put me off.

Then, too, there was the subject matter. My partner is an epidemiologist, and frankly, I'm rather spoiled when it comes to plague novels. After years of osmosis, I'm as likely to punt a book across the room when an author makes a medical faux pas as some people are when a physics mistake is made. I don't get through a lot of plague novels, in other words.

Infected is different. I raced through it, half expecting to toss it at the cat at any point, but I didn't. I finished it, and enjoyed it thoroughly. It's not without a few issues, but by and large overcomes them pretty effectively.

Infected focuses on three people, each of whom faces a mysterious alien plague from a different compass point. Margaret Montoya is a relatively low-level epidemiologist from the CDC—not even senior enough to be working out of Atlanta where all the "important work" is done. But she stumbles across a couple of cases of a mysterious new disease, puts two and two together, and comes to the conclusion that it's a biological weapon. She brings it to the attention of the appropriate authorities and so she gets tied up in the whole mess.

Dew Phillips plays the other side of the fence—he's a veteran government agent who's there to help Montoya with the practical side of trying to trace the disease, but he keeps getting there just a little too late to bring Montoya a victim who's still alive. He's not just a grunt doing legwork, though—he's got an agenda of his own when it comes to dealing with the violence of the plague.

Peter Dawsey is the last of the main characters, and in many ways both the most compelling and the most repugnant of them all. When Dawsey first notices that he's got a bit of a rash, he isn't worried at all—it's easy to ignore. But it gets worse, and worse, and then he realizes the sores don't look like anything he's ever heard of. As it gets worse, he realizes that whatever is infecting him isn't just making him sick, it's taking over his body. But Dawsey isn't just some random victim—he's an ex-football hero who doesn't take crap from anybody. He grew up in a violent household, and isn't afraid of a fight, so even as the parasites grow and get stronger, he's going to fight back in any way he can.

Despite the fact that Peter Dawsey's character is pretty much my personal antithesis, I found him riveting. Margaret Montoya and Dew Phillips are well-drawn characters, with strong motivation and plenty of appeal to the reader, but Dawsey is the one who catches the eye. And this, despite the increasingly, well, messy state that Dawsey is in as the infection gets progressively worse. Detail after startling detail just keeps bringing him center stage, even when one of the other characters is up at bat.

When you first pick up a copy of Infected, it's easy to think that it's a horror novel. There are certainly a lot of horrific elements to it. But despite that impression, it's not—it's definitely hard science fiction. If you define hard science fiction as a story that isn't just accurate in its science, but has that science at the very core of the story, it certainly fits that bill. A trained epidemiologist might very well spot problems in Sigler's science, but aside from a few minor issues, I can't.

At the same time, it's also a fast-paced thriller, something that's altogether too rare in science fiction these days. You see this disease is really nasty. It seems to turn ordinary people into paranoid killing machines, who turn against the people they know (and love) and slaughter them before being overcome themselves. Not surprisingly, the government is trying desperately to discover the source of the disease, while at the same time avoiding a panic (which would make it harder to track and probably spread the disease faster).

Sigler carefully entwines the science and the investigation of the disease with the fast paced action, and gives enough details that you can envision being inside a Racal biohazard suit next to Margaret Montoya when she examines the bodies. And if there were any naked infodumps, they didn't bother me.

Another thing that I really like about the story is that Sigler didn't simply rehash the same crap that often populates plague novels—terrorists let loose a dangerous plague, or the US government bumbles its way into making things much, much worse. Both scenarios are all too likely in real life, but they've been done to death on the written page. Even worse are those novels that use a reincarnated black death as the evil plague or, more recently, Ebola. Or if a writer does venture to create a new disease, all too often, it's got such virulence that it makes Ebola seem like a mild case of poison ivy. A word to the wise: Ebola hasn't made greater headway in exterminating the human race at least in part because it is so nasty. It kills its host too quickly for the virus to spread effectively across populations. Sigler actually uses this to his advantage in Infectedthe parasites in the story are really nasty—and are much slower in spreading than they might be precisely because they're too virulent to be easily passed from one host to another before killing the first host.

Infected isn't perfect—Sigler does fall back on the old standby of personifying the parasites by giving them short sections here and there that are effectively told from their point of view. It's a standard way of slipping in infodumps in a way that (hopefully) doesn't feel like a lecture. By and large, he does this pretty well—only a couple of times did I feel thrown out of the story, which is better than average. Most of the rest of the background information is slipped in the way it should be—through action. In Infected, you rarely have to deal with the old "As you know, Bob..." way of getting information across.

I'll admit that a couple of parts made me cringe a little (aside from, well, you know, the blood and guts). The occasional issue with the science or medicine, that sort of thing. There's a really outrageous containment breech at one point, for instance, that goes unremarked upon—not a good thing if you're working with a Level Four pathogen. But the rest of it is good enough that I could grit my teeth and deal with it. Luckily, I didn't have to grit my teeth all that much.

There were a few spots where my knee-jerk reaction did start to kick in—Dew Phillips is a CIA agent, for instance, and the story sees him actively operating within the bounds of the US, something that is actually prohibited by law. But each time I had such a reaction, Sigler anticipated it and had a reason for doing things the way he did. I didn't always buy the reason, but it did give the issue a sort of ersatz legitimacy, which is all I really needed to continue my suspension of disbelief and move on with the story.

And there are more than a few points where the story pushed even my limits about what can be done to the human body. There's a lot more blood and gore than you'd normally find in a science fiction novel. For the most part, I don't think it's gratuitous—it fits the story and the circumstances—but it's still a bit graphic at times. I'll just say "chicken scissors" and leave it at that—if you read the novel (and I do recommend it), you'll know exactly what I mean. But consider yourself warned.

I read for character in my novels, and Infected definitely has it, in spades. But Scott Sigler doesn't stop there. He's got scientific detail to satisfy the most hardened science fiction fan, coupled with a style that's more like someone sitting down and telling you the story than anything else—all wrapped around a fast, driving plot. This is definitely not a novel to miss. And once you've read it, I can pretty much guarantee that you'll never think of the song "I've Got You Under My Skin" in quite the same way again.

Copyright © 2008, Aidan Flynn Gallagher. All Rights Reserved.

About Flynn Gallagher

I'm a hard-core science fiction fan from way back, with a particularly strong interest in biologically hard science fiction. In the real world, I'm a web-designer living in Kirkland.


Jun 3, 03:52 by IROSF
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