By Scott Sigler
Crown, 2008, 352 pp.
It may sound like a cliché, but I really didn't expect to like this novel. Not because of the author or the subject matter, but because of all the hoopla surrounding it. Scott Sigler got a lot of attention when his first novel Earthcore became the first novel to be podcast-only, and he shortly followed it up with another (Ancestor), then another (Infection), another (The Rookie), and is currently podcasting yet a fifth (Nocturnal) on his website. Almost from the beginning, he's made waves with the podcasts and gained quite a following—
But this isn't about the podcasts, it's about Scott Sigler's novel Infected (originally podcast as Infection). Crown Books picked it up recently, and it's now been issued as a hardcover, released in April. Small wonder they decided to publish it with all the buzz surrounding it, but I'll admit that it was this same buzz that put me off.
Then, too, there was the subject matter. My partner is an epidemiologist, and frankly, I'm rather spoiled when it comes to plague novels. After years of osmosis, I'm as likely to punt a book across the room when an author makes a medical faux pas as some people are when a physics mistake is made. I don't get through a lot of plague novels, in other words.
Infected is different. I raced through it, half expecting to toss it at the cat at any point, but I didn't. I finished it, and enjoyed it thoroughly. It's not without a few issues, but by and large overcomes them pretty effectively.
Infected focuses on three people, each of whom faces a mysterious alien plague from a different compass point. Margaret Montoya is a relatively low-level epidemiologist from the CDC—
Dew Phillips plays the other side of the fence—
Peter Dawsey is the last of the main characters, and in many ways both the most compelling and the most repugnant of them all. When Dawsey first notices that he's got a bit of a rash, he isn't worried at all—
Despite the fact that Peter Dawsey's character is pretty much my personal antithesis, I found him riveting. Margaret Montoya and Dew Phillips are well-drawn characters, with strong motivation and plenty of appeal to the reader, but Dawsey is the one who catches the eye. And this, despite the increasingly, well, messy state that Dawsey is in as the infection gets progressively worse. Detail after startling detail just keeps bringing him center stage, even when one of the other characters is up at bat.
When you first pick up a copy of Infected, it's easy to think that it's a horror novel. There are certainly a lot of horrific elements to it. But despite that impression, it's not—
At the same time, it's also a fast-paced thriller, something that's altogether too rare in science fiction these days. You see this disease is really nasty. It seems to turn ordinary people into paranoid killing machines, who turn against the people they know (and love) and slaughter them before being overcome themselves. Not surprisingly, the government is trying desperately to discover the source of the disease, while at the same time avoiding a panic (which would make it harder to track and probably spread the disease faster).
Sigler carefully entwines the science and the investigation of the disease with the fast paced action, and gives enough details that you can envision being inside a Racal biohazard suit next to Margaret Montoya when she examines the bodies. And if there were any naked infodumps, they didn't bother me.
Another thing that I really like about the story is that Sigler didn't simply rehash the same crap that often populates plague novels—
Infected isn't perfect—
I'll admit that a couple of parts made me cringe a little (aside from, well, you know, the blood and guts). The occasional issue with the science or medicine, that sort of thing. There's a really outrageous containment breech at one point, for instance, that goes unremarked upon—
There were a few spots where my knee-jerk reaction did start to kick in—
And there are more than a few points where the story pushed even my limits about what can be done to the human body. There's a lot more blood and gore than you'd normally find in a science fiction novel. For the most part, I don't think it's gratuitous—
I read for character in my novels, and Infected definitely has it, in spades. But Scott Sigler doesn't stop there. He's got scientific detail to satisfy the most hardened science fiction fan, coupled with a style that's more like someone sitting down and telling you the story than anything else—