“There’s nothing worse than having an itch you can never scratch.” -Leon, Blade Runner
Dr. Seuss wrote marvelous childrens books filled with clever word plays that kept them interesting for the adults that had to read them over, and over, and over. His books were like crack for two year olds who were learning their way around the language.
Infected, by Scott Sigler isn’t really the kind of thing you’ll want to read to your two year old unless you want her to jump off the apartment balcony to her death, but, like Suess, Sigler delivers a healthy dose of suspense-filled narcotics to adults who (if they’re smart), are always trying to learn their way around the world. After all, contra Disney, the world is not filled with singing meerkats, hearts and flowers, and happily ever afters. Most of what the world is filled with is, frankly, quite disgusting.
Infected is the story of former college linebacker Perry Dawsey, now a systems engineer, who has a couple of problems. He’s given to intense fits of rage, which he has learned to control through long and careful dicipline and which he feels profoundly guilty about. He also has an itch – seven itches, to be precise. Little pimples with black centers that just…won’t…stop…itching. There’s nothing worse than having an itch you can never scratch, especially when you’re over six feet and two hundred fifty pounds of solid muscle, given to psychotic rages, and can snap bones like fireplace tinder.
It’s also the story of what might be the ultimate in weaponized nanotech. Somewhere, someone released nanotech spores across the world which eventually fell to earth and landed on thousands of people. Finding a suitable environment, they do what spores everywhere do – they grow in the soil they rest on. Like any parasite, they cleverly use their host’s body to advance their own ends. Unlike other parasites, they can think, and talk, and they can give instructions to their host. Those instructions often involve killing people. They’re spreading fast, and a pair of crack scientists are doing their best to figure out what it is before more people die on the hands of their parents, spouses, and children at the point of a kitchen knife.
For Parry, it all starts with a little itch that he ignores. As the parasite’s lifecycle progresses, he shuts himself up in his apartment and battles the chorus of alien voices in his head and with the psychological demons that his ironclad self control had managed to supress for years. In a character arc worthy of Robert Bloch or Franz Kafka, we see the tendrils of Parry’s control unwind, one by one, as he attempts to keep himself sane, to find a way to remove the parasites, and to keep his self respect and self control intact.
While the olympian struggle rages in a small apartment building, the scientists across town discover, bit by bit, the nature of the parasite unfolding under their microscopes. Their struggle for discovery and Parry’s struggle for self-posession ratchet each other up to a fevered pitch of stomach-churning suspense as we, the readers, succumb to the creeping dread that something very, very bad is going on.
Infected is not for the feeble-minded, or the feeble-stomached. It’s a strong dose of acid against a strong constitution. Sigler’s use of hard-core biology, parisitology, and nanotechnology are so well-researched and spot-on that you can’t walk away from the book without a keen awareness of how edible we large organisms really are. The world is filled with parasites whose lifecycles are not very different from the nanotech beasties that Parry’s got under his skin, and out skill with nanotech as a civilization is quickly rising to the level where such weaponization is inevitable. There’s a lot of crazy bastards in the world, and a lot of them have a lot of money and a sincere desire to see a lot of other people die.
But every inch as disturbing as the biological and geopolitical implications of Sigler’s soul-scratcher, his characterizations consistently hit far too close to home. Unlike what one most often sees in books – even horror books – most people are not warm and fuzzy creatures. Consistent over Sigler’s body of work are well-drawn characterizations of upsettingly realistic people. Not everyone is a Nietzschian superman, not everyone is redeemed, and the good people are not always the good guys. In Infected, self-interest throws the reader in on the side of Perry, and pity keeps you there, but a keen awareness of the man’s unpleasantness, unlikability, and his burgeoning psychopathy keep him at arm’s legth as long as possible, until the reader is forced, inch by inch, to admit how much of Perry truly is everyman. He is a throghouly average fellow with a frustrated gift, turning a his dicipline, character, and a certain breed of integrity just a few degrees off prime into something twisted, terrifying, and monstrous.
I’ve enjoyed every one of Sigler’s podcast novels so far, but of the ones he’s completed, Infected is my favorite. It does in microcosm what his larger novels do in macrocosm. Claustrophobic, intelligent, pulse-poundingly suspenseful, it draws the reader forward with a feeling of dark inevitability, taking a “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” tour along the seam between everyday neurosis and psychopathy, and ending with a climax that will doubtless leave the poor author crushed to death beneath a leigon of fans stampeding his home with cries of “Sigler, you bastard, where’s my sequel?!!?!”
Not for the faint of heart, weak of stomach, or fragile of mind, Infected nonetheless is top drawer fiction. Highly recommended!