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Jamie Thornton [Celluloid 06.12.08] post apocalyptic review book

Year: 2007
Publisher: Ace
Author: Jeff Carlson
Amazon link: link
Rating: 8 out of 10

Jeff Carlson’s Plague Year, his debut novel, is one of the best post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read all year. Part Michael Crichton, a little Stephen King; a lot of good writing.

The story is a classic post-apocalyptic setup. A secret group of researchers were trying to design nanobots that would search out and fight specific cancer cells. Yet these invisible robots escape from the lab unable to differentiate between cancerous and normal cells. This machine plague kills almost all mammals on earth by eating away all warm-blooded tissue. Carlson’s unique twist centers on a weakness: the plague cannot survive in altitudes above ten thousand feet. Those people who made it to this altitude before the plague swept around the world are now struggling to survive.

The novel opens with Cam, a former ski patroller lucky enough to be up in the mountains when the plague hits. His small group of survivors is reenacting a modern version of the Donner Party in the high Sierras. They’re out of food, out of wood to burn, have group sex to keep warm, and if they drop below ten thousand feet to scavenge for supplies for more than a few hours the machine plague will liquefy their insides.

A stranger barely survives a trek through a low valley and collapses at their camp, alive, but blood pouring from every orifice. He calls himself Hollywood. He wants Cam and his group to follow him--he promises other survivors, better shelter, and food. Cam and his two bed partners, Erin, a college girl hardened by the atrocities she’s witnessed, and Sawyer, a man Cam suspects knows much more about the nano plague than he’s letting on, along with other survivors who are not exactly friendly, decide to risk plague contamination and follow Hollywood. If they cover every open wound--goggles on the eyes, masks on the nose, and the like--they might be able to keep enough of the nanos out. It’s a race: the more time they spend beneath the plague line the more their bodies will disintegrate beyond healing ability, and the more difficult it will be to move quickly.

The story then switches to Ruth, a nanotechnology expert who was sent into space at the first signs of the plague in order to help find a cure. Except now she believes the only way she can help is to return to Earth and work on the nanotechnology in the “new” capital of the United States: Leadville, Colorado. Yet when she does return, she finds herself embroiled in a political contest that could leave what’s left of the U.S. in the hands of a dictatorship that would decide who would, and would not, receive a cure if one was found.
Each character’s story goes from bad to worse, driving forward the plot and providing a solid canvas by which Carlson explores this chilling new world--until their storylines combine in a final climax in the streets of downtown Sacramento, at an elevation far below the ten thousand foot mark.

Carlson lives in California and set the majority of his story in the Sierras around Lake Tahoe, as well as in downtown Sacramento. I’m a Sacramento native myself. While most of us would look at a map of the city to plan out a commute, Carlson used it to map an ambush sequence. He re-envisioned streets usually full of cars, flowering trees, old houses and politicians, and turned it into a wasteland; a building by building obstacle course, and he made me believe every word of it.

This doesn’t feel like a debut novel. The complexity of the plot, the full development of main characters, the science behind the nanotechnology, the details on high-altitude living in the Sierras--Carlson makes it all seem plausible and thrilling. This is a third, a fourth, a fifth novel. This is a master at work and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Carlson has already received glowing reviews from big names like Robert Sawyer (Rollback), James Rollins (The Judas Strain), David Brin and more. I’m no bestselling author or pillar of the SF community, but for what it’s worth, I’ll add my voice to the chorus and say that if you are any kind of fan of post-apocalyptic fiction you must read Plague Year; it leaves you gasping for air from page one.

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Wilcoy (14 years ago) Reply

Good book review. I'll be checking it out soon...thanks.


Van (14 years ago) Reply

This sounds like a damn good read. Adding it to my list of books to complain to my local Borders about not having in stock. Damn Australia. I'd never want to live in America, but you guys DO get the best range of stuff!


Barnesm (14 years ago) Reply

I was going to skip this one, but your recommendations to date have been GOLD so its on my reading list.


dan (13 years ago) Reply

This was a great book I have lived in Sacramento my whole life and I really enjoyed reading this. It was really interesting to see references to the Sacramento area and realize that those are things you see in everyday life. Overall great novel great review can't wait for the third book


Kevin D. Hendricks (13 years ago) Reply

I thought it started a little slowly and I had trouble differentiating the male characters, but once that sorted out I thought it was great. A very original PA idea.

I went on to read the sequel, Plague War, and it was just as good. I'm hoping to pick up the third one (Plague Zone) soon.

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