Sunday, August 17, 2008

Jeff Carlson's "Plague War"

Jeff Carlson's short fiction has appeared in venues such as Asimov's, Strange Horizons, Fantastic Stories, and Writers of the Future XXIII. His first novel, Plague Year, was published last year.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new novel, Plague War, and reported the following:
By sheer good fortune, Page 99 of Plague War is pretty heavy stuff! War is a sci fi thriller full of gunfights and chase scenes, but I also like to think it's well-balanced with real, believable characters who act realistically against incredible odds.

To recap: A medical prototype nanotechnology gets loose before it's complete. The nanotech swiftly replicates across the planet... and, in doing so, it devours all warm-blooded life below 10,000 feet elevation, where it self-destructs. The geopolitical map is obliterated. There is famine and war, and the environment is crashing worldwide.

A few heroes have developed a new "vaccine" nano to protect survivors from the machine plague. As Page 99 begins, three of our protagonists have been on the run for days, hiking up from sea-level into the Sierra mountains. They hope to find other people to inoculate with the vaccine tech. Instead, they come upon a desolate peak where a small group appears to have escaped the machine plague... only to succumb to other threats like hunger, cold, and disease. Before they died, however, these people scratched thousands of crosses into the rock as well as arranging boulders in crucifix shapes, as if begging the heavens for salvation.

Confronted with this eerie, unexpected scene, our heroine, Ruth Goldman, begins to second-guess everything she's done.

Some islands would also be thick with rats and fleas, pests that were extinct everywhere else for lack of hosts. "If we find anyone who's obviously sick, we might have to back off. Leave them alone." Ruth pushed her thumb against the patterns etched into the rock, her mind reeling with quiet horror.

There was another threat they were certain to find among the pockets of survivors. Insanity and delusion could prove to be an even greater problem than disease. Aboard the ISS, Gustavo had reported religious fervor in Mexico, Afghanistan, the Alps, and Micronesia. Holy men had risen everywhere in the apocalypse.

Ruth had never had much use for God. People cited the mysteries and wisdom of faith, pointing to the great understanding of their teachings, but what they'd really done was to close their minds against the true complexity of the planet, to say nothing of the incomprehensibly vast universe. The idea was laughable. What kind of half-wit God would bother to create billions of other galaxies if Earth was the focus of His energies?

It was a very human thing to believe. People were lazy. They were egocentric. Ruth understood wanting a small, controlled world. No one liked uncertainty. It tested the boundaries of human curiosity and intelligence. The monkey was still very strong in modern man. The monkey had limited patience, so people resisted time and change. They developed rationales to show that they were the center of everything, fighting to teach "intelligent design" in school instead of biology and science. Nonsense. Tall parents tended to have tall kids. Short parents tended to have short kids. Everyone wasn't identical. It was that easy to see -- evolution in a single generation. Otherwise people would have been perfect clones of each other throughout history. To think that life was immutable was a fantasy. Bacteria grew drug-resistant. Dogs could be cultivated into ridiculously specialized breeds like her step-father's terrier. Religions themselves had evolved with time, some growing more open, some more closed.

There were real answers if you sought the truth. The world was knowable. That was what she'd learned, but it was hard. She would have liked to feel that a larger hand was guiding her, but why her and not the people who died on this mountaintop? Because they were evil?

Ruth's self-doubt is already a problem before this scene, but her inner conflict hits a deeper note here, beginning a secondary character arc for her that builds inexorably to the novel's big finish -- so, yes, I believe the Page 99 Test has done it again. Ford Madox Ford says, "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." It's true!

Plague War is loaded with personal struggles inside the larger battle, and this scene speaks to that mix of great-and-small exactly.
Read an excerpt from Plague War and watch the video trailer.

Visit Jeff Carlson's website and his blog.

The Page 69 Test: Plague Year.

--Marshal Zeringue