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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Philip K. Dick Award Nominees, Part 1 - Plague War, by Jeff Carlson (reviewed by Fabio Fernandes)

Following a personal trend I set a while back in Post-Weird Thoughts, I´ll be starting to post here a series of award-related reviews. First in the list is the Philip K. Dick Award, which will be announced next Friday, April 10, 2009 at Norwescon 32. Some of the books have already been reviewed here; some of the posts will be mirrored from PWT. (That mirroring, btw, was discussed previously with Robert a while ago - though I will, whenever possible, publish somewhat different material, and won´t be doing much of it.)

First of the batch is Jeff Carlson´s Plague War.

Jeff Carlson almost didn´t make it - he got into the final ballot at the last minute (right after the last minute, in fact). The list of nominees had just been published when Kristine Smith's Endgame was turned ineligible because it was published by the end of 2007, and not in 2008. So, it was removed from the list, and replaced with Carlson's novel.

There´s a thing to be said about this novel and other PKD nominee, Karen Traviss´s Judge, and the thing is: sequels. Judge is the last book of a six-part series, while Plague War is the second novel of a trilogy (the third is still being written). That is, first you have to read the other books if you really want to know what´s going on after all.

In Carlson´s case, however, things are not that difficult, as Plague War is just the second installment, and the flashbacks are few and straight to the point. Anyway, first books first: since both books aren´t that big (less than 300 pages each), I will review both here, with a special focus on Plague War.

Plague Year is a strong, heavy book. What else could one expect of a book that begins with "They ate Jorgensen first"? Tarantino would go ballistic - except it´s no laughing matter. Plague Year is not exactly about survival of the fittest - it´s also about survival of the fastest.

In the near future, a nanotech device was created supposedly to cure cancer. It just had one setback: it also killed its subjects - and contaminated anybody else around very fast. Five billion people died of the machine plague. The survivors took advantage of the only weakness of the nanomachines: the altitude. The nanotech selfdestructs above ten thousand feet. Most of the survivors are located in China, Tibet, Middle East, Canada and America. When Plague Year starts, though, eleven months have passed, and people are none the wiser on what really have caused the plague and if it´s already safe to go down (or if it will ever be someday).

The story focus initially on a band of survivors struggling (barely) for life in the high California Sierra, east of Sacramento. Ex-ski patrolman Cam Najarro and a ragtag group of five people lost in the mountains when the plague struck managed to make camp and now are facing a terrible winter, with no food and water. And, as with usually happens with most groups of people in those unfortunate circumstances, they must control themselves all the time to maintain a semblance of community life. The group is barely kept on balance by Cam and another man, harsh, mysterious Sawyer, who appears to know more than he is telling.

But not everything are rumours. The International Space Station has been doing a lot of progress in finding a cure of sorts for the machine plague. Its chief researcher, Dr. Ruth Goldman, almost got there, but she will need more equipment - equipment that can be only accessed and used on Earth. At some point soon the astronauts will have to get down as well, for they don´t have enough supplies or technology to live in orbit indefinitely.

Plague Year alternate the stories of Cam and Ruth and their respective groups. Cam´s group finally venture outside their redoubt (a small peak in the Sierras) when they receive a visitor from other camp, who has a radio and news from outside. Even though the visitor reaches them, he is already much too contaminated by the plague to survive, but the message he delivers is clear: there´s life out there, and if they get prepared, there´s a chance they will survive. So they start a difficult journey along the range, trying as hard as they can not to cross the invisible frontier of the 10.000 ft.

Meanwhile, Ruth and her colleagues get cheerful messages from Earth: there is a place in Colorado that survived in good shape the machine plague and can receive them. In fact, the city of Leadville, after the demise of the President of the USA, has become the seat of the government of America, and they pretty much insist that they land there. They manage to do so using the shuttle Endeavour, and they are really most welcome there - with two casualties from the landing itself and a riot caused by a rebel sniper that almost got Ruth herself killed (she ends up only with a broken arm).

Soon Ruth sees that she´s not a hero, and things are not in black and white. There is a war in the making, and the Leadville government want her to help them develop not only a cure for the machine plague, but also a deadlier variety of it to eradicate their enemies. She doesn´t want to do it, but she knows she must comply at least until she find a way to defect to Canada, where (at least as far as rumours go) they only want a cure, no bioweapon attached to it.

When Cam´s group finally get to a place where there is a working long-range radio, Sawyer, whose health is getting worse every day because of the contagion to which they had to submit themselves in the way to the higher peaks, asks to talk to Leadville and reveals his true identity: he is one of the creators of the nanomachines. Given his equipment and capable assistants, he said he could reverse-engineer the machines and disable them.

A rescue mission is organized from Leadville to California to get Sawyer and take his equipment. Ruth, plus a Special Forces team, travel to the California Sierra, and take Cam and Sawyer with them. They go to Sacramento to pick the schematics of the nanomachines.

If only it was that easy. Now not only they must face a division in their own Special Forces unit, as Sawyer gets caught in the line of fire and dies. He already had a sort of experimental vaccine developed, and Cam, Ruth and a few troops get innoculated before all hell breaks loose in the streets of Sacramento when Leadville sends their fighters with the "snowflake" (the even-deadlier strain of the plague) to kill the rebels (not to mention the collateral damage).

That said, Plague War could easily be Part II of the same novel, not a sequel. You can close one book and open the second at once, and the story doesn´t change the pace.

This part is much harder than the first one. Now, for instance, we see Cam through the eyes of Ruth. Cam Najarro is a good guy, one of the really few good guys in the story, so we always tend to see him in a good light, and with good looks. But he is ugly, or: he was made ugly by the plague. Ruth is sickened by his vision, but at the same time she is attracted to him.

Together, with Special Forces Sergeant Newcombe, they are trying to run away from the Sacramento area to carry the nanotech to survivors everywhere. After the innoculation with the experimental vaccine, their bodies now are mostly immune to the machine plague, and they are the only hope for mankind.

But this is not a "blurb sentence"; that´s the plain, simple truth - as is the fact that they will have to walk hundreds of miles and face dangers typical of post-holocaust settings, as the hordes of bugs and ants carpeting the streets of Sacramento, their reproductive cycle gone haywire. Imagine, if you will, the rage of red ants in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but worse. And this in the first twenty pages of Plague War.

This book is less about politics (and a little bit less about science) and more about survival. This unlikely trio must go for the mountains - but not to Leadville - , but can they trust each other? And, even if they can, will they be able to survive in the middle of the war that just began between what´s left of America and Canada plus the Russians and the Chinese.

The only apparently weak point of this novel is the characterization of the Russians and the Chinese as being sly, ruthless enemies who destroy and vaporize first and ask questions later (if any). Carlson does his best to counter this Tom-Clancy-esque approach presenting the thoughtful, considerate Commander Nikola Ulinov, who worked with Ruth Goldman in the International Space Station and who tries to negotiate a peace of sorts with the American government. And, to show us that all-American guys aren´t necessarily always the good ones, he also introduces us to Senator Lawrence Kendricks, who definitely is not the best President in a state of emergency America would want to have.

But this doesn´t do a thing to spoil the novel. The war gets ugly to a point of (almost) total destruction, while Ruth, Cam and Newcombe meet other small groups along their way - including boy scouts! - and are finally rescued, but not by Leadville neither by Canadians ou Russians. Ruth is forced to create a new "snowflake" for the remnant of the American government - but will it be for long? Not if Cam will have his way.

Jeff Carlson is a no-nonsense writer. He cuts to the chase, and he really (thank God) is not interesting in selling us military propaganda. I confess I feared that in the beginning of the first book, but my fears were soon dispelled. Both Plague Year and its sequel, Plague War, focus on the human angle, that is: how would we really react in face of such horrors? For, as much as many of us would like to, we can´t fight major threats alone. We are not Walker, Texas Ranger, John McClane, or whatever one-man/woman-army Hollywood insists on selling us as the flavor of the month.

You can check an interview I did with Jeff Carlson last January here.


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