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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Plague Zone by Jeff Carlson

Title: Plague Zone, 3rd (and final) Plague Year book
Author: Jeff Carlson
Reviewed Format: mass market paperback
Release Date: November 24, 2009
Pages: 336

In Plague Zone, Jeff Carlson uses the last few pages of the first chapter to revisit what’s happened in the previous two books.  Usually, these kind of summaries bother me, but in this case I was glad.  It’d been so long since I read Plague War that I’d forgotten exactly what happened.  Plague Zone not only filled in the gaps, but delivered where I felt the previous two were lacking.  Having stopped the widespread distribution of yet another evolution of the machine plague that first ravaged across the world, Cam, Ruth, Allison, and Eric have set up camp in Jefferson, Colorado (named after the former US President), hidden away from other military forces who would still arrest, at the very least, Cam and Ruth, for their direct involvement betraying and sabotaging US Military efforts to unleash the third machine plague.

Where Plague War was political, Plague Zone is more action-packed with an additional, fear-inducing element.  When a lookout from Jefferson spies a lone wanderer edging closer to the city limits, he sends Allison with a small team to investigate.  Partly to ease the growing tension between her--now his wife and pregnant with their child--and Ruth, his former object of lust, and partly to delegate, Cam is more preoccupied with an upstart ant invasion that threatens to cause more damage to their already tenuous living conditions.  His attention quickly alters course when screams and gunfire alert the citizens of Jefferson that the city is suddenly under some kind of attack.  It isn’t Russian or Chinese forces bearing down on Jefferson--it’s an even more pressing and dire threat: the wandering refugee is slack-jawed and white-eyed, shuffling toward the city with an eerie momentum.  Suddenly Allison’s small party begins dropping and convulsing, jerking awkwardly against their own bodies.  It isn’t until Ruth realizes what’s happening does she try to keep everyone else from saving their crew; a new nanotech plague has been unleashed and it renders its victims into zombies.

Now, before I go on, these aren’t your typical vacant-eyed, gotta-eat-your-brain-but-human-flesh-will-do-just-as-nicely type of zombies.  Carlson’s zombies are infected with an airborne plague that wafts from their vitals like an odorous perfume, reaching those downwind faster to infect them first.  They don’t have to actually bite anyone to infect new victims.  Being in the same general vicinity will do.  This new threat makes the book a little more dire and dramatic as our protagonists flee into the hands of the military they’d been hoping to evade.  Now it’s up to Ruth and Deborah Reece to develop a vaccine that counters the effects of this new mind plague, but also prevents the Chinese army from further inoculations.

One of the things I had trouble with in the last book was the lack of enemy perspective.  Luckily, Carlson introduced Colonel Jia of the People’s Liberation Army, which, while helpful, brought its own set of narrative problems.  Jia refers to his homosexuality as a “deviancy” and a “curse” (p. 283)--something I hope is given for cultural context since I sympathized with him for feeling he had to hide his true self.  As derogatory as I felt the terms were, I was convinced Jia truly felt trapped.  At least until his lover meets a violent end and Jia comes across the only other homosexual character in the book.  A character who just so happens to flirt with Jia and who Jia just as easily latches on to.  I realize the world has gotten quite small, thanks to the machine plague, but pairing off the only gay characters left in a book is just as insulting as pairing off the only female to the first male she comes across.  I don’t think Carlson is a particularly strong romance writer and this attempt is, in my opinion, weak, albeit fueled by political survival.  In that sense their behavior is understandable, if not entirely believable, but I suppose I’m still trying to work out my frustration with this situation.

Adding to that is Jia’s frenzied imagining of a “cabal” (p. 283)--a secret homosexual group keeping an eye out for each other and rising through the Chinese military ranks--is a bit ridiculous.  Contextually, he’d just done something worth execution and it’s this fear that drives his imagination to this point, but I’m confused why his fear leads him to grasp at survival, wherein his sexuality would save him where before it’d been, to him and his fellows, a shameful, damning thing.  It’s true that fear can make us do and think differently, but in the context of the story, I think this line of thinking was unwarranted, albeit understandable: if Jia’s entire career hinged on his superiors finding out about his sexuality, of course it’d be the first thing come to mind when he felt in danger.  I think the reason I see it as unwarranted is tied directly to the romantic (or even physical attraction) undertones Carlson wrote into the scene.  Bu had just died and already Jia is quite ready to jump into the affections of another partner.

The same could be said of Cam and Ruth, but the difference is the history they have built over the past two books.  Ruth and Cam frequently danced around each other, clearly attracted to one another, but never quite consummating either the emotional or physical side of their relationship.  In Plague Zone the two finally confront their hesitations.  As much as I felt rewarded by this, I also felt a little put off with Cam’s abrasive behavior.  One particular scene has him (a Hispanic soldier) justifying the use of racial slurs against the Chinese forces in California to incite anger and “channel those emotions” (p. 229) to give his American fellows the momentum necessary to act.  It seems even in our future, we are reduced to race-based justifications.

There were many things I did love about Plague Zone.  Apart from finally getting an enemy point of view, there was a lot more narrative involvement over the war; as a reader, I felt directly involved where before I felt left out.  To be fair, it isn’t until the end of the previous book that the protagonists, our narrative guides, become involved either so it makes sense for the final book for there to be more focus on that area.  I just happen to be more comfortable with it now than before.

One aspect of Carlson’s style is approaching a scene with one character and one character only.  When he switches point of view, he doesn’t always revisit the same scenario from the new character’s perspective.  Instead, he picks up where the other character left off.  For the most part, this is refreshing and a unique way to approach the text.  It definitely helps to propel the story forward and adds a sense of urgency, but at times--and I hate to admit this--it can be a little unsettling.  For instance, you never quite know if a character has died or gotten injured until afterward because of how quickly a perspective can change, moving forward in the timeline of events.  Overall, though, I like this approach.

Since I was on cold medication while I reading Plague Zone (and while writing this review), it’s hard to say if I enjoyed this more or less because of that.  I’d like to think I enjoyed it anyway, but there are a couple of allusions I’d like to point out that I can’t quite figure out what to do with.  For one, Kendra Freedman, the creator of the first machine plague, is referred to as the “destroyer of worlds” (p.272), in much the same way J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita after unleashing the first atomic bomb, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”  The similarity is uncanny and I salute Carlson for sneaking this in.  The other allusion I picked up on is the one I’m not sure even exists or if it’s just a product of my over active, medicine-fueled imagination.  When our heroes arrive over San Bernadino in a helicopter in search of Kendra, it’s a woman reduced to skin and bones with wild, scraggly hair they find instead of the plump one they’d been expecting, waving her hands and arms erratically above her head.  The appearance is immediately summed in the label, “witch” (p. 256) and later “ugly witch.”  I couldn’t understand why that appearance would make anyone think of a witch--an unkempt skinny woman waving her arms around means witch?  Then I remembered Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the witch figure who, like Kendra, is also dark-skinned and, if I remember correctly, behaves similarly when viewed from the safety of the boat Marlow journeys with his entourage in search of Kurtz through the wild jungles of the African Congo.  Of course, I could remember this entirely wrong.  Please correct me if I do.  I’d hate to think I’d learned something poorly.

In any event, Plague Zone appealed to me in a way its predecessors did not.  Carlson kept the tension and suspense well until the end.  I think it’s because I found out Plague Year was optioned for a movie that I couldn’t help imagining Plague Zone as very cinematic--and how well certain scenes would translate to that medium--but overall it was a good trilogy and I’d recommend them all to Science Fiction thriller fans.  This is also one of those rare books where women take a vital role in the story!

How many Jawas recommend this book?


Anonymous said...

Skipping the review, because I'm really looking forward to reading this series myself. Once my husband has stopped hogging the first book. :(

Erika said...

@TJ: I knew you'd be interested in reading these before the review! I was ambivalent about the first two books, but think the third really delivered. They're good, fun reads. :)

Book Chick City said...

I have this series on my shelf too! Looking forward to reading them :)

Erika said...

@Book Chick City: It made an interesting trilogy. I'm glad they were published in mass market, though. The feel of the books fit the format well. I look forward to when you read & review the books! :)

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