Sunday, February 2, 2014

Scott Sigler's PANDEMIC

What if Alastair Reynolds' Inhibitors found us back when we lived on just the one planet, and instead of harnessing the destructive power of stellar physics to destroy us, were masters of biotechnology instead and just hijacked our own brains and bodies into doing it?

Such is the malevolent force Scott Sigler has created for his Infected series, my fondness for which I have covered elsewhere. The machines working to wreak apocalyptic havoc on humanity refer to them as The Creators, but we could really maybe call them Space Republicans, for their knee-jerk reaction to the idea that the universe might contain sentient life other than themselves is to seek to destroy that life utterly before it evolves to the point of developing space travel and the ability to destroy The Creators. See also Douglas Adams' Crikketers.

The result is a combination of first rate body horror and disaster porn, rather than space opera, but the comparison stands. As Reynolds draws on a prior career as a professional astronomer, Sigler draws on the expertise of his rabid fanbase (known as "Junkies" the ranks of whom include the likes of Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, who gets a hilarious cameo-tweet mid-story) and his own formidable attention to scientific detail, again almost to a fault. Reynolds' books occasionally threaten to drift into becoming astronomy primers; this series of Sigler's has passages that might stand up in a college biology textbook -- but it's all the service of selling the story. And lots of people are buying, including your humble blogger.

Pandemic, the third and final volume in the series takes all of the bio-medical creepiness, apocalyptic threat and heroic angst of Infected and Contagious, turns the volume up to 11, and rips off the knob. With each novel, the Creators' semi-sentient minions have learned more about human biology on both the individual and the social levels and have exploited that knowledge to nearly destroy humanity, only to be barely thwarted by the combined efforts of a team of scientists, soldiers and politicians who contain the threats posed in the nick of time, and through the individual bravery of a few early victims like washed-up football hero Perry Dawson, patient zero in the first novel, who still looms larger than life after death in this third one.*

Dr. Margaret Montoya, the woman who failed to save Perry, but who saved a lot of other people at great cost, is more or less the hero of this one, or at least she's supposed to be, but once again, despite her scientific brilliance, her strength, her crippling guilt and her marital problems, she's the least interesting character in the book. But this isn't because she's a badly drawn or boring character; she's just got a lot of competition, not the least of which from the disease itself, whose "point of view" Sigler relates in several interludes of frightening plausibility and maximum grossness (seriously, trigger warning for you germophobes out there. If someone blowing his/her nose in your presence squicks you out, if you're one of those people whose hands are constantly drenched in hand sanitizer, this is maybe not the book for you). And the other characters, including Ancestor's Dr. Tim Feely, still yucking it up even as he fights to save the world again. And the plot. And the colossal world-wide scope of the problem she faces, a plot so apocalyptically epic that the most vivid and compelling character in the world would pretty much get lost in it.

The fact that she doesn't, nor do the new characters introduced in this novel, says everything about Sigler as a writer; he achieves a near-flawless balance between character moments, dire exposition and insane-to-the-point-of-thigh-slapping ACKSHUN. The result is a compelling and ickily plausible read even before the climactic hijinks.

I expected nothing less.

*As well he should. He and his chicken scissors are unforgettable.

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