Jeff Carlson’s Plague Trilogy

Plague Year

Plague WarPlague ZoneIn honor of Jeff Carlson releasing expanded “author’s cut” editions of his Plague Trilogy, which I enjoyed and reviewed in the last quarter of 2013, here are my retro reviews of the originals.

The covers, incidentally, are from the old editions.

Review: Plague Year, Jeff Carlson, 2007.

Carlson gives us a nanopacalypse like no other. There’s no care-free scavenging. Go below 10,000 feet, and you’re infected by tiny machines (designed to cure cancer) that liquefy your body. But, unlike a lot of post-plague stories, there’s no inevitable doom once you’ve got it. Get back above the “death line” quick enough, and you’ll probably live. But this is no cosy, back to nature story. Not only have billions of humans died. So have most of the mammals and birds. The earth’s ecosystem is messed up big time.

At high altitudes throughout the world, humanity carries on. In Asia, China and India go at it. Russian must fight to keep its highlands. And, in America, what’s left of the government is in Leadville, Colorado.

Separated from the main action are Carlson’s three main characters: Cam, a young ski bum who happened to be at the right height to survive; his fellow survivor Sawyer, brutal, clever, scheming, secretive; and Ruth, a nanotechnology research at the International Space Station trying to find a solution to the plague despite bad equipment and squabbling colleagues.

Ranging from Earth orbit to Colorado to Sacramento, Carlson keeps the narrative engine stoked. In the first sentence, the cannibalism has already begun, and the grim tension never lets up as Carlson jumps from scene to scene, backfilling the details in to give us some nasty surprises and, at one point, some downright beautiful writing.

Realistic science and characters, social decay, combat, and alpine adventure, make this a very likeable novel.

Review: Plague War, Jeff Carlson, 2008.

Take a world without warm-blooded life below 10,000 feet. Detail its problems of potentially lethal insect swarms, plants dying for lack of pollinators, and vast soil erosion. Add in an American military government trying to find a solution to the “machine plague” of nanotechnology that did all that killing while fighting rebels. Blend with a war against what’s left of the Russian and Chinese militaries.

That’s the world our hero Cam and heroine Ruth wander across, desperately trying to bring their vaccine against the machine plague to isolated mountain top survivors in the Sierra Nevadas – while staying out of the clutches of the American government. It has used nanotech weapons on its own people and wants the strategic advantage of the vaccine for itself.

Even faster paced than its predecessor, Plague Year, and taking place over less time, this novel also stands out not only in its extrapolations of the plague’s effects but the superb characterization of Ruth, Cam, and another character returning from the first novel. The relationship between Cam and Ruth, both damaged physically and psychically by their post-plague experiences, is a complex blend of sexual attraction, guilt, denial, and need. Carlson also does a nice, credible job in depicting military culture and values.

The only quibble I have with the novel is that the ending felt a bit rushed and vague at the end. Still, it’s a very good post-apocalypse story and worthy successor to the first novel.

Review: Plague Zone, Jeff Carlson, 2009.

Set 15 months after Plague War, Carlson again messes up the lives of his characters, the uneasy truce between Americans, Russians, and Chinese, and, even the Earth’s ecosystem. And, as with real life, that means a few things just aren’t going back to normal. Characters are going to die, and dilemmas remain unsolved.

A cabal of the Chinese government, anxious to cement their occupation of North America and repopulate the world with Chinese, unleashes a “mind plague” that leaves its victims mindlessly seeking their old haunts and friends in order to infect them. The word “zombie” is actually used a few times, but these aren’t Romeroesque zombies that want to feast on human flesh.

The settlement where Cam and Ruth, protagonists of the trilogy live with Allison, Cam’s wife, is overrun by the infected. Thus starts a series of events that take place over, maybe, just a week though this is the longest book of the series. With this and his recent Interrupt, I’ve come to think of certain things as trademarks of a Carlson novel: well-done science and technological extrapolation, a realistic depiction of military life and tactics – even if the militaries contain conspiracies and cabals, situations of escalating desperateness where no one is safe, and satisfyingly worked out romances.

That’s the plus side. On the negative side, the feats of his nanotech designers are accomplished in what seems to me an improbably short amount of time. But what would I know? I’m not a nanotech designer.

Also, I sometimes think the explanations offered at critical moments of the plot are a bit vague. I also find that some of his action scenes and physical descriptions are hard for me to imagine. But I suspect that’s more a quirk of my mind, the circumstances I read the novel in, or my faster than normal reading speed – ‘cause Carlson is pulling me through a story I don’t want to stop with rumination. And, as far as descriptions go, Carlson is even conscientious enough to put maps in his books. And his explanations do make more sense if you re-read them carefully.

The Plague books are the ones that rightly made Carlson’s reputation. You could do a lot worse than going with Carlson as he kicks over the traces of our world and sends his characters scurrying.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.


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