Fiction Reviews

Patient Zero

(2008) Jonathan Maberry, Gollancz, 9.99, trdpbk, 421 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08692-0

When cop (former army guy) Joe Baltimore just shoots someone dead and then they get up so he has to kill them again, it scares him. Shortly after he is recruited into an ultra black op. Apparently his encounter as well as army and police experience make him ideal to lead a small unit against a terrorist that has a discovered a way to create zombies. With the terrorists themselves split in their motives, a highly infectious and lethal biological agent in the mix, and with the World potentially becoming filled with the walking dead, Joe has his work cut out.

Maberry has crafted a technothriller with an SFnal/horror riff. It is a mix that you will either love or hate. SF fans who also enjoy technothriller will delight in Maberry getting a good balance between the two. The SF and horror does not dominate and lets technothriller aspects propel the story relentlessly. Having said that pure SF fans may find that their genre is heavily diluted to the point of purely providing the technothriller with a different hue to the majority of the others of that sub-genre.

What this novel has in buckets is testosterone. Combat, weapons, explosives, military kit, bulging biceps, macho grunts, and power that only governmental and multinational-level money can buy are at the heart of Patient Zero. Forget sense-of wonder and think kill power.

Now if all this seems unfairly dismissive of the novel's SFnal aspect then assure me it is not and you deserve to be told. Aside from coming out from Gollancz, arguably one of Britain's leading SF imprints, the author's note at the book's front proclaims that he has sought advice from university researchers, a molecular biologist, a research pharmacologist and a neuropathologist. He may well have but I assure you that the science content within this novel is minimal to the point of being non-existent (and at one point he seemed to have misinterpreted his biological guidance). True, the trappings of science and medicine (labs and white coats) abound but there is little or no science explanation. To some (hard SF fans) this may be a lacking, to others it will be a blessing (non-hard SF, technothriller readers). It really does depend on what cuts your mustard. The other SFnal deficit is the lack of sense-of-wonder. For my money, for zombies at their best you get images of our high-tech, fully functioning, modern society undermined by the brainless whose numbers, and slow but relentless march, literally assaults the truly living. In Patient Zero we get none of this even though the potential for it to happen is discussed.

Nonetheless, if you want to switch you mind into neutral and go for a whirlwind militaristic ride with just a hint of SF and horror to spice things up, and especially if you like your testosterone by the bucket load, then you may find Patient Zero being a real treat.

For those who care or wonder, the book's pre-publicity review copy has a 2008 copyright date but the brief itself suggests a 2009 release. Either way the trade paperback most certainly did not come out until this year (2009).

Jonathan Cowie

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