By Josh McClain
The novel “Contagion” by Erin Bowman came out in 2018, just before the era of COVID-19. Unfortunately, Bowman would have done well to wait until COVID made its appearance so she could take notes because our worldwide pandemic is quite frankly more creative than the infection Bowman attempted to resurrect.
Bowman’s sci-fi thriller begins in terrific form, initially earning every page turn. The story follows the evacuation of a space base crew, including research intern Althea Sadik, on the frigid ice planet Soter after a blizzard threatens to bury their outpost. Just as they are preparing to blast off into space, their forewoman Dylan Lowe decides that a select group from the base will respond to a mysterious distress call in a faraway solar system rather than returning to their home system, the Trios.
Immediately, “Contagion” establishes a common premise of thriller stories, a badly planned venture into an isolated territory with a nefarious history. Dylan chooses Althea, also known as Thea, to accompany her on the rescue mission along with interstellar pilot Nova, computer technician Toby, mechanic Sullivan, and renowned microbiologist Lisbeth Tarlow. The ill-equipped crew haphazardly proceeds to fly toward Black Quarry base, the source of the distress call, instead of waiting for more qualified backup from their hiring company, Hevetz Industries.
When the group arrives at Black Quarry, they find the mining operation abandoned and in complete disrepair. Every crew member they find on the planet is dead, victims of an inexplicable genocide. Yet Bowman reveals the existence of a single Black Quarry survivor through flashbacks at the beginning of each chapter, a shadowy figure who stands as a looming presence throughout the book.
Bowman relates early on that Dylan’s father, a Hevetz executive, was stationed at Black Quarry, driving her to insist on a thorough sweep of the mining operation at the risk of the rest of the rescue team, who comply against their better judgment. This urgency leads the majority of the crew into one of the planet’s mineshafts, where they discover more dead bodies and something even more unsettling.
I won’t reveal any more than the book’s title implies. The cause of the mining base’s genocide turns out to be a parasitic infection that induces frenzied bloodlust in its infected. In other words, Bowman’s promising sci-fi mystery turns into a gritty zombie survival tale about halfway through the book.
I wouldn’t mind Bowman’s use of zombies in her plot if she hadn’t used them in a very stereotypical manner. She never calls them “zombies”, but the altered humans in her story have the same dimwitted, invulnerable, and bloodthirsty attributes as the undead from countless zombie tales. Even though I’m not a fan of this trope, the undead have their place in horror stories, and this book is one of the more gripping portrayals I’ve read, albeit somewhat generic for anyone familiar with the concept.
I highly valued Bowman’s fast-paced storyline and gripping action. She did a wonderful job of keeping the answers to the mystery just beyond the reader’s grasp without driving the reader crazy. The frenetic, shadowy atmosphere fits the plot very well and is maintained throughout the novel’s entirety.
However, when the book wasn’t engrossing, it was just plain gross. It isn’t quite as gory as your average R-rated horror flick, but it’s certainly not for kids either. On top of that, “Contagion” contained its own barrage of needless obscenities as well as a subplot hinting at the normalization of homosexuality. Most of the characters felt unnaturally brutish, stubborn, and shallow, and I struggled to feel any sort of empathy for them as they suffered the woes of a zombie outbreak.
Thematically, I failed to find anything worth taking away. The main point of the novel seemed to be “you need to learn how to depend on yourself because ninety-nine percent of people aren’t trustworthy.” Apart from that maxim, it seemed like a fairly straightforward modern take on a classic zombie slasher that sets the stage for its concluding 2019 sequel, “Immunity.”
For anyone in the mood for heart-pounding zombie action, “Contagion” fits the bill despite its shortcomings. Otherwise, readers will likely find more wholesome and enlightening literature elsewhere. “Contagion” is currently available to borrow at the Curriculum Materials Center in the Centennial Library.
Josh McClain is a freshman Professional Writing and Information Design student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys writing stories, reading YA novels, and playing spikeball and soccer with friends.