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Book Review: CONTAGION by Erin Bowman

Title: Contagion

Author: Erin Bowman

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication date: July 2018
Hardcover: 432 pages

It got in us

After receiving an urgent SOS from a work detail on a distant planet, a skeleton crew is dispatched to perform a standard search-and-rescue mission.

Most are dead.

But when the crew arrives, they find an abandoned site, littered with rotten food, discarded weapons…and dead bodies.

Don’t set foot here again.

As they try to piece together who—or what—could have decimated an entire operation, they discover that some things are best left buried—and some monsters are only too ready to awaken.

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned duology

How did I get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Print

Review

Imagine this: a space colony, funded by an intergalactic conglomerate, focused on mining a super rare metal that, for all intents and purposes, determines who is in power throughout the galaxy. Now, imagine that the colony discovers something even more rare than the metal they’re supposed to be mining: alien microbial life.

Life isn’t always kind, though. Imagine the souls of this small mining outpost, overtaken by a contagion that destroys everything it comes in contact with. Right before the end, a distress signal goes out–a desperate, futile hope for rescue that spells disaster for anyone foolish enough to set foot on the planet.

Thea Sadik is a sixteen year old intern with the opportunity of a lifetime: aiding the famous Doctor Lisbeth Tarlow with her ongoing revolutionary research, for the most influential corporation in the universe. An orphan from a poor planet, Thea has worked hard to get this chance with Hevetz and will do anything to preserve her future prospects. At her remote posting, it quickly becomes clear that everyone other than Dr. Tarlow doesn’t really take her seriously–but that’s ok with Thea. Resigned to keep her head down and do good work, her goal is simple: use the internship as a stepping stone to get into a top scientific research school.

Of course, all of that goes to shit when the post receives a mayday from the Hevetz colony on Achlys.

Thea and Dr. Tarlow are assembled as part of the rescue team under the supervision of extremely green captain Dylan. (The motley crew includes a tech specialist, a teenage pilot, and an additional company man–aforementioned teen pilot’s cousin.) Eager to prove herself to her high-ranking father–incidentally, the man in charge on Achlys–Dylan forges onward with her ill-prepared rescue team, ignoring warnings and other directives from Hevetz (and hiding those facts from her team).

When the crew finally arrives on planet, they find disaster. Most of the colony is simply gone, and the few bodies they encounter are bloody and horrifyingly mutilated. Was it cabin fever, or some other horrible act of violence that caused the crew’s deaths? Or was it, as Thea suspects, something biological? And what is Dr. Tarlow–the lone survivor from the last ill-fated colony established on Achlys many decades before–hiding from the others?

I love a good sci-fi horror story. I especially love a good the colonists are gone and this research/rescue mission is SOOOO doomed sci-fi horror story. Such is Contagion–reminiscent of favorites like classic hellship horror Event Horizon, James Cameron’s Aliens, and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.

In Erin Bowman’s take, there are several familiar elements: an unlikely and underestimated (but with an abundance of steely nerves and compassion) hero? Sixteen year old orphan brilliant intern Thea–check. An unforgiving environment from which escape is all but impossible? Achlys is a near-inhospitable planet of boiling heat and frigid darkness, tidally locked with its dwarf star, meaning the mining facility can only exist at the terminator and subject to extreme, instant weather shifts–check. A host of boneheaded decisions by the idiot in charge of the mission? Captain Dylan (why is this always a thing in SFF? There’s always a jerkface who is willingly ignoring advice and direct orders to stand down or turn around, but for personal ambition or power reasons they decide to plunge blindly ahead and make a bad situation so much worse)–check. A horrific body-horror contagion that greedily and aggressively infects human hosts? Bleed from the eyeballs rage zombie level infection–check.

There’s an undeniable level of inevitability to these classic SFF horror archetypes, but Bowman lines them all up beautifully and weilds them with awesome skill, building tension through the extreme setting, the underprepared crew, and the desperate need to get off planet; the ever-present threat of the mysterious disease (and later, the literal pressing threat of space zombies); and ultimately the Big Bad corporation that wants to weaponize the contagion. I loved every second of it.

Beyond the excellent use and skill with regards to tropes and tension, the other reason Contagion is so successful is because of its characters. Obviously it’s awesome to read about a main character named Thea. (THAT NEVER EVER HAPPENS.) Name choice aside, it’s cool to see a character who has so much to lose and is self-confident but also fragile in her place in the world. I liked that Thea is not physically strong or imposing, but finds her voice and stands against her superiors when she knows they are doing the wrong thing. Similarly, I liked reading from pilot Nova’s perspective as she struggles with her own place in the galaxy after washing out of military flight school, and her conflicted feelings for her boss, Dylan. Through Nova’s narrativd, I even felt a little for Dylan despite her series of terrible decisions to prove her worth and desperation to flex muscle as an untested captain. Of course there’s also the enigmatic Lisbeth Tarlow–a scientist with her own secrets and motivations on Achlys. The only character I wasn’t completely sold on was survivor, Coen Lashly–there’s a bit of melodrama to his interstitial narrative additions that cheapen the overall story, though his role in it is undeniably pivotal.

The best part about Contagion is that there is more coming–I personally cannot wait to drive back in and see what happens next. Absurdly fun, and absolutely recommended for fans of SFF, but especially SFF horror.

Rating: 7 – So Very Good

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