The Plague Year Trilogy — Book Review

Plague Year, 2007
Plague War, 2008
Plague Zone, 2009     by Jeff Carlson, Ace Books, New York

“If it happens that the human race doesn’t make it, then the fact that we were here once will not be altered, that once upon a time we peopled this astonishing blue planet, and wondered intelligently at everything about it and the other beings who lived here with us on it, and that we celebrated the beauty of it in music and art, architecture, literature, and dance, and that there were times when we approached something godlike in our abilities and aspirations. We emerged out of depthless mystery, and back into mystery we returned, and in the end the mystery is all there is.” 
— James Howard Kunstler

I don’t know if it’s the times, or the latter days of a life at 60, or just happenstance, but I’m reading a lot of apocalyptic science fiction these days.

As Susan Sontag understands about science fiction in the movies: “Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art.”  The same can be said for much of the genre in its written form, from A Canticle For Liebowitz on….

I’ve read, for instance, the first two volumes of John Birmingham’s curious trilogy (its first volume named Without Warning) about the disaster that befalls North America when a mysterious force field called the Wave wipes out 99% of the United States’ population.  If you can accept this mysterious premise for the books, which is never really explained, but just occurs, then you can go on to find of interest the well-told tale of global and local political, military and societal turmoil.  But in the end, the world of the novels began to falter for me as just too farfetched to take seriously.

I’ve also recently read Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy that began with Forty Signs of Rain. This is a writer I admire, the author of the remarkable Mars trilogy about the deliberate transformation of that planet into one usuable by humans.  In the more recent Forty Signs of Rain trilogy (which goes on with Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting), Robinson explores weather disasters precipitated by global warming here on Earth.

I found Fifty Degrees Below of particular interest, with its tale of the paradoxical cooling result of global warming, as the ice caps melt and change the beneficial warm ocean currents which in the Atlantic, for example, keep Britain from freezing to death.  If the moderating effect of the Gulf Stream shuts down from the sudden influx of colder water, that means constant blizzards and sub-zero temperatures in London and on the East coast of North America, especially if the currents find a new and altered equilibrium.

(In connection with this, you may find two recent scientific references of interest: Melting Glaciers May Affect Ocean Currents and Thermohaline Ocean Circulation .)

But returning to the subject of this post, recently I happened to pick up the novel Plague War.  This exemplifies the problem I have with trilogies or series of any kind.  I hate not beginning at the beginning, and so I tend to avoid them unless I know I’m able to read them all. But Plague War caught my interest so intensely, after mistaking it initially for a stand-alone volume, that half-way through I had to try to find the other two, which I did in a Vancouver used book store specializing in science fiction.

Plague Year

So I stopped dead in the middle of Plague War, and began again with Plague Year, the first book.

It’s about nanotechnology, and a series of catastrophes wrought by it.  And what is nanotechnology? It’s about manipulating matter at the molecular and atomic scale, even to the extent of creating machines that operate sub-microscopically.  Such machines could, for instance, travel along capillaries to enter and repair living cells, or assemble multitudes of nanoscopic parallel-processing computers which could create more of themselves, and other miniscule machines for purposes not easily achieved at a larger scale.

Surely this is just a wild idea of science fiction, no?  On my book shelf I have the book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology written by the Father of Nanotechnology, Eric Drexler, back in 1986. Then the whole idea of assembling machines smaller than individual cells seemed farfetched in the extreme.

But today research into nanotechnology is burgeoning, with new materials and processes constantly being developed, as science approaches the accomplishment of some limited aspects of Drexler’s vision.  For instance, surgeons are predicting the coming usefulness of nanotechnology in their practice, engineering researchers have made a significant breakthrough in the use of nanotechnologies for the construction of a synthetic brain, and there is research into using nanoparticles for more effective delivery of chemotherapy to treat cancer.

And this brings us to the disaster that befalls North America and then the world in the first novel.  Microscopic machines designed to fight cancer instead go awry and begin to disassemble warm-blooded tissue to make more of themselves. Eventually the human body succumbs to the onslaught of the spore-like machines. They spread like a virus by way of bodily fluids and through the air.

The intriguing premise though is that either on purpose or as a design flaw, the nanovirus is limited by altitude, namely 10,000 feet.  All warm-blooded animals are killed below that elevation, while humanity retreats to high places.  Some of these islands in the sea of deadly nanotech are small and only a few souls find their way to them, while in some places, such as Colorado in the Rockies, there are enough high altitude facilities for civilization to struggle on.

In some ways, this is similar to Birmingham’s setup in his trilogy mentioned above, where geograpical limitation and action against humanity sets the world on its ear.  But in the case of Plague Year, the terrifying nature of what nanotechnology could mean both for good and ill provides a much more interesting, and plausible, context.

The intensity of Plague Year comes from a desperate struggle for survival of primarily two characters: Cam, a ski bum with full emergency medical training and a remarkable talent for survival, and later Ruth, a genius capable of manipulating and designing nanotech.  In the isolated heights where Cam and a small party of others find themselves, they struggle to survive by occasional short sallies below the nanotech line to scavenge supplies and by cannibalism of the weak and fallen.  The short rushes into nanotech territory result in rashes, blisters and scarring.  The cannibalism becomes a matter-of-fact necessity of avoiding starvation and death.

As a novel, this could descend into a ghoulish mess of no interest, but the author’s characterizations, pacing and the end of the world on the line pull it into a fascinating tale of people under ultimate stress.

Above in the International Space Station, Ruth is conducting nanotech experiments when the world falls apart almost overnight.  She and other astronauts battle to return to Colorado where they crash land a shuttle and barely survive.  Meanwhile there are news and rumours of weaponized nanotech, and even of an antidote to the deadly scourge of the lowlands.

The thing is, those who run what remains of the United States and its military intend to keep the antidote or vaccine nanotech solely for their own use, while they put the rest of the world into abject dependency.

With the lightning spread of the nanotech plague, the Chinese, Russian and Indian powers are fighting to seize and retain control of high plateaus and mountaintops in their parts of the earth, and the rest of the world descends into darkness as well.

Ruth and a few rogue officers conspire to take over the vaccine nano, which is highly experimental and not completely dependable.  By the end of the first novel, Cam and Ruth are on the run together, as what remains of the might of the US military circles to hunt them down, and as they desperately strive to spread the vaccine to others.

I admire the author’s skill in constantly keeping everything in the air — the politics, the intrigues, the conspiracies — while sending Cam and Ruth on their run to literally save the world.  There is much more to the story than I can or want to relate here, in hopes that you the reader will pick up and find the series as fascinating as I do.

The weaponization of nanotech

You know that something as effective as what nanotech may become in its full form will be begging to be turned into weapons to fulfill the aims of nation states.  Just as there is biowarfare and nuclear warfare, so will there be nanotech warfare, and it may turn out to be the worst of all.

Even now there are cautionary signs on the horizon…. nanotechnology is currently being developed to create “dangerous and destabilizing” refinements to nuclear weapons technology.  For example, the technology may be used to significantly reduce radioactive fallout, which according to one article, means it becomes more acceptable in its use.  The article points out that tiny nano-robots may turn out to be physically impossible or impractical at a tiny scale, but larger, but still very small, military machines may well be developed.  I’m sure there are dreamers in the Pentagon loving the idea of nano-drones….

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology warns that an eventual flexible, easy-to-use, preferably large-scale, molecular manufacturing system, quite likely by 2025, would lead to such dangerous miniaturizations as nanotech-built tiny antipersonnel weapons capable of seeking and injecting toxin into unprotected humans.

These potential problems are of sufficient concern for the US Government to devise a national strategy for ensuring that environmental, health and safety research needs are met in “this emerging technology.”

On to the second novel, Plague War

Plague War becomes more of a character study of Ruth and Cam in harrowing circumstances, struggling with their doubts and fears, while battling to survive in inhospitable terrain and to avoid infestations of insects. Insects such as ants have become a plague of their own after the demise of all warm-blooded animals, including birds, altered the normal constraints on their proliferation.

The two, who struggle with their friendship and what might be more, are not a normal couple — the tension between them also drives the story forward.

As they struggle to find recipients for the nano vaccine, the world of human warfare goes on around them.  The Americans are engaged in a civil war. The Russians drop a huge nuclear weapon on the Colorado capital of the United States, to create enough disarray to allow an invasion to the US’s relatively abundant higher ground.  The Chinese start to invade, having somehow got their hands on the same vaccine that Ruth and Cam are trying to spread which allows survival on the land below 10,000 feet.

Deadly variations on the nanotech continue to raise the stakes until Ruth (without giving away too much of the story) convinces, or extorts, the Chinese and US leaders into a cease-fire.

Whew!  Where can it go in the third and last installment after that?

Plague Zone

All is not well at the beginning of the third novel. The small community where Cam and Ruth live is slowly losing the battle with the environment as ant infestations overwhelm their greenhouses.  Then a new nano plague makes itself known, a nano machine in the brain that dilates wide the eyes and makes the sufferer behave like a demented zombie.  I know, the zombie thing…. it’s a little too trendy, but these aren’t your typical drooling braineaters.  There’s more going on.

The Chinese military, who still have a major presence in North America along with the Russians, have a devised a new nano strategy to conquer the allied American and Canadian forces: spread the mind nano everywhere while they inoculate themselves with the vaccine.  It affects time sense and memory and spreads immediately at the merest contact.

Cam and Ruth go back on the run to avoid the new plague and to try to figure out how to counteract it.  After all the deaths, including nuclear strikes, Ruth is one of the last people on earth capable of finding a way out.  She needs to find a place and samples so that she can unlock the nano’s secrets and find an antidote.

We observe the Chinese side of the war from the viewpoint of a Chinese colonel orchestrating the mind nano.  This dastardly fellow, for instance, strangles his closest female confidant, who trusts him completely, because he believes it’s his duty to do so for the good of the country since she knows too much.

In the end, Cam and Ruth must go back to the source of the original nano plague and its creator to find the key to unlock a new vaccine.  Ruth succumbs to the mind nano.  The fate of nations, what remains of them, hangs in the balance….

I’ve probably given too much away of the story for all three books, so I will leave it there.  I will say by the end, Cam and Ruth feel like old friends that one has been through the wars with, and it’s sad to leave them behind.

Why do I enjoy these so much?

As Jeff Carlson said in an interview, none of these books are the The Joy Luck Club. This is not subtly refined literature.

The books are visceral, even shocking.  In a way, they are like Harry Potter books for adults, with nano subbing in as the new magic. Evil is rampant and everyday, and sometimes part of us too, while at the same time we are capable of rising above it.

The books are immensely skillful in what the author accomplishes: the sense of a complete world in dire straits not exactly like our own but very similar, and constant movement past great soul-searing obstacles that only these particular characters are capable of overcoming….

Those who study story, like myself, can find a lot to learn here.


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2 Comments on “The Plague Year Trilogy — Book Review”

  1. Rick Matz Says:

    I am for some reason drawn to apocalyptic novels. I’ll have to check them out.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Rick,

    Give them a try. I found this particular trilogy very hard to put down….


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