(2019) David Koepp, HQ, £12.99, hrdbk, 309pp, ISBN 978-0-008-33450-5
This is a debut novel but the author has much experience of story telling, being a screenwriter and director who has been involved with Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, Panic Room, War of the Worlds and Mission: Impossible, amongst others. This experience shows as the story works very nicely; it is fairly simple and clips along at a decent pace. The author refers to it as horror, though I would class it as a science fiction thriller; an enjoyable, page-turning, thriller.
Back in 1979 Skylab fell out of orbit and most of it burnt up in the atmosphere (that bit is true). One of the experiments running on Skylab was on an aggressive fungus, which had been sent up there to test the impact of zero gravity on its growth properties. As it happened the tank containing the fungus survived re-entry and crashed into the middle of Australia’s Gibson Desert, hundreds of miles from anywhere at all other than the tiny clutch of buildings known as the Kiwirrkurra Community. After a while it was found by a local and kept as a souvenir.
The story opens in December 1987. In an effort to clean up the now rusting tank, its new owner had polished it and inadvertently triggered the dormant fungus into growth. Maybe it was due to the effects of radiation or perhaps some form of contamination, but the fungus had mutated and it was now extremely nasty. It was fast growing and it was hungry, and it found humans very much to its taste. Fortunately a phone call for help was picked up by the right people and a team was sent in, though too late to save anyone. It did not take long for Roberto Diaz and Trini Romano, of the United States DNA (Defense Nuclear Agency, headed by Gordon Gray), to arrive on the scene, contain the threat, and destroy every trace of the fungus bar a small sample taken for further study.
Of course, that sample should never have been taken; it should all have been totally destroyed, once and for all. However, despite warnings from the agents that it was an extinction-level threat the fungus sample was placed in storage, deep in a special facility in eastern Kansas. The Atchinson Caves had started out as mines but during the cold war, being derelict, the government had taken them over and turned them into secure underground storage for such sensitive items as nuclear devices. They had also dug a lot deeper and created a number of sub-levels. The sample was placed in the very lowest level, where it would be kept at almost freezing point. It would be safe, it would be completely inactive; well almost. To quote from the book:
‘The storage plan for Cordyceps novus was a perfect one.
Unless, that is, Gordon Gray took early retirement.
And his successor decided sub-level 4 was better off sealed up and forgotten.
And the temperature of the planet rose.
But how likely was any of that?’
That is the set-up and, of course, we have the main story. It is now March 2019 and the Atchinson Caves had been cleared out by the government years ago and sold off. The caves were now a public storage facility and nobody knew about the sealed up sub-levels. Over the intervening years – although very, very slowly – the fungus, Cordyceps novus had attacked its containment vessel and escaped. It was beginning to spread. The only warning the world had was an alarm sounding on an old control panel hidden behind sealed up walls. Fortunately, it was loud enough to be heard by Teacake and Naomi, the two security guards on duty that night, but they had no idea what they were walking into. More fortunately, the alarm also went off at DTRA (Defense Threat Reduction Agency) and Roberto Diaz, now retired, got a call in the middle of the night. He was the only one who would know what it meant or what to do and he was going to have to move very fast and be very lucky if he was to save all life as we know it, else the planet would have a very different future…
I found this to be a most entertaining romp. The pages turned easily and the story moved along nicely. It is a simple story that just tells it as it is; there are no surprising, out-of-the-blue, twists and turns, no treacherous other parties, and no complex goings-on. It often diverted a little to review the backgrounds of the characters but, as these were interesting and often humorous, they added to the story. The author used the neat trick of following part of the story via one character then something odd happening, as if he had lost his own plot; however, just a few pages later he would backtrack by a few minutes or hours and follow another character to the same point, thus explaining the anomaly as he brought the reader up to date. He used this technique a number of times and it worked very well in this setting; it is the sort of editing one sometimes sees in films or TV programmes and, indeed, I sometimes had the feeling I was watching a film in my mind. In addition to telling the story itself, there is a constant, slightly cynical attitude to describing people and day-to-day events, and this really added to the enjoyment - adventure written with a humorous style.
I look forward to more novels from David Koepp.
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