Plague Year is Jeff Carlson’s riveting novel about a nanotech machine plague that breaks out in Northern California, and ultimately kills nearly five billion people. The hook: the machine plague has a hypobaric trigger that renders the plague inert at elevations over 10,000 feet. While I normally do not review fiction novels on this site, this book provides an interesting take on how the rampant proliferation of nanotechnology could go awry. It is a fascinating and entertaining read that I highly recommend.
Style – 10.00
The authors’ style is entertaining, clear, and concise. The characters are quirky, and behave in ways that maximize their own self-interest. In other words, they are flawed like any human being. The book has a good pace and tempo, and is very easy to read in one sitting. The book’s style is also reminiscent of a well-written movie script.
In fact, if Plague Year became a movie, I would see it.
As such, I rate the authors’ style a 10.0 out of ten.
Structure – 10.00
The book starts in media res with survivors in the California Sierras, and then zooms out to scientists working feverishly to find a cure on the International Space Station. By the end of the book, one scientist returns to earth desperately seeking a cure for the plague amidst a nascent civil war in downtown Sacramento.
The book has a clear beginning, middle, and end, and it merges two storylines together seamlessly by the middle of the book. Overall, the book receives a rating of 10.0 out of ten for structure.
Substance – 8.00
Plague Year is a fast-paced, post-apocalyptic thriller. It has fascinating descriptions of how the machine plague works at the nano scale, and also touches on the complex political interactions in a Leadville, Colorado-based government of 600,000 American survivors.
It has everything one needs in a post-apocalyptic thriller: war, violence, cannibalism, a degenerative machine plague, over-populated ant swarms, and an airborne assault into downtown Sacramento.
Yeah, about that airborne assault…While there seems to be verisimilitude surrounding Carlson’s nanotech descriptions, his depictions of the military need some improvement (hopefully by the time the movie comes out).
While the airborne landing with parachutes and gliders seems pretty exciting, no military officer would ever consider such an assault in an urban area filled with debris and wreckage. In such an operation, more paratroopers would be lost in the jump than in actual combat, particularly if they were wearing bulky protective gear. More likely, the assault would be a heliborne operation much like this famous scene in Apocalypse Now:
There are many other examples that only someone from the military might notice, but they are so subtle that it would be overkill for me to continue to beat this dead horse.
Since the descriptions of nanotech and action-packed scenes overwhelm the author’s minor errors regarding military doctrine and tactics, I rate the book’s substance an 8.0.
Sentiment – 10.00
Jeff Carlson seems to share a similar view of humanity as I do. That is, humans can be pretty nasty creatures when you take food, shelter, and comfort away from them. His book includes instances of cannibalism among plague survivors in the California Sierras, as well as surviving governments in Russia and China that corral POWs like cattle to provide a food supply.
Frankly, the world he creates is a depressing one, but also seems fairly realistic given human nature. As such, I give the book’s sentiment a 10.00.
Significance – 8.00
I cannot give it a significance rating any higher than 8, because, well, it is a fiction novel. That said, the book raises some important issues. Nanotechnology is likely developing faster than policy-makers are able to fully consider the potential consequences of its wide proliferation. I do not even believe arms treaties cover its use as an offensive weapon. I mean, is it a biological weapon? A good military officer, worth his salt, could make a convincing argument that it is not. Instead, one could argue that it is a nano scale kinetic weapon.
Because this book sheds light on an emerging technology that has the potential to both save and to destroy the human race, I rate the book 8.0 out of ten in terms of its significance, even though it is only a fiction novel.
Overall Rating – 9.00
The book’s overall rating is 9.00 out of ten, after assigning the appropriate weights to each item. If you have any interest in nanotechnology, warfare, or apocalyptic thrillers, this book is a must read.