Pandemic by Scott Sigler, Crown, 592 pages, $26
When George Romero popularized zombies in the '60s, they were straightforwardly a trope for Cold War anxieties. They trudged and lurched, as vacant as the '50s stereotypes of mindless consumers rising from their fallout shelters. Zombies faded from the popular imaginary for a while, but in recent years they've returned from the dead (sorry). Today's zombies, from "28 Days Later" to "World War Z," are frequently zippier, as befits a world defined by globalized capital flows and environmental collapse. Root causes have shifted from radiation to zoonosis and genetic hack.
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Scott Sigler's "Infected" trilogy mixes up the zombie trope with its Cold War cousin, alien invaders. An advanced civilization has seeded the galaxy with weapons designed to wipe out intelligent species: infectious parasites that turn their hosts into rage machines with blue triangles sprouting from their skin. In the second entry in the series, "Contagious" (2008), intrepid scientist Margaret Montoya of the Centers for Disease Control fought the evil triangles with American know-how and ruthless pragmatism. This resulted in the nuking of Detroit, which in my opinion is just adding insult to injury. A few years later, as "Pandemic," the final novel in the series, begins, things have returned to a semblance of normality. But an alien probe has survived at the bottom of Lake Michigan, and soon cities are burning, people are eating one another, and nuclear bombs are flying again.
Sigler has learned a lot from Stephen King, especially about pacing. This is what the hacks call a white-knuckle thrill ride. But you'll have to pardon his prose style, to the extent that he can be said to possess one. His sentences are crudely functional: "The waitress appeared … The waitress winked … The waitress shook her head … The waitress walked off." He's fond of needlessly expository prose: "White blood cells are a critical part of the immune system…. Neutrophils are amorphous, meaning they are without form." But what is "the immune system"? And "form"? These abstruse terms are giving me a headache.
Sigler also revives the myth of a red telephone connecting the White House to the Kremlin, "a piece of equipment that for five decades had served as a last resort to stop nuclear war" — the actual hotline, originally a teletype machine rather than a phone, was located in the Pentagon and is now a secure email connection — but maybe he's letting us know he's having us on. The horrors get a bit tedious as the action gets more ludicrous, and the characters are about as deep as cereal boxes, but Sigler deftly revitalizes clichés — raises them from the dead, you might say.
Seven Grams of Lead by Keith Thomson, Anchor, 464 pages, $7.99
There are, very roughly speaking, two types of spy novel. There's the cerebral, all-too-human type, where the excitement is in inflection and tone. Lives hinge on bits of seemingly banal conversation, misdirection, psychology, cups of tea. Things aren't black and white — they're cynically gray. Think John le Carré's George Smiley or Eric Ambler's naïve, accidental heroes. Then there's the outsized cartoon type, in which espionage revolves around techno-wizardry and body engineering, judo and motorcycle chases. Good guys defeat bad guys. Think James Bond or Jason Bourne. The first is the more realistic, and, for that reason, ultimately the more thrilling; the second is insubstantial as an Oreo — probably bad for you, but yummy.
Keith Thomson mingles the types with an expert sense of irony. His protagonists — an alcoholic who likes the ponies but can't pick a winner, a political blogger — are ordinary people unwittingly mixed up in conspiratorial fantasias. But they are eventually called upon to deploy nano-tech insects or bring down a helicopter with a few beer cans, some deodorant and a pingpong ball. Thomson has as much fun with genre tropes as Sigler does, but there's more than mixology at stake in his third novel, "Seven Grams of Lead."
The title refers to Stalin's supposed quip about how to solve a problem (some sources put it at eight or nine grams) — the sort of trivia you'd expect a political nerd like journalist Russ Thornton to know. So when a rogue government agent assassinates a scientist working on a secret weapon with a bullet weighing exactly seven grams, Thornton finds it a little too cute. He begins sniffing around, which, of course, makes him a target, along with his old flame and a wealthy bombshell whose promiscuity recently cost her a Senate bid.
The wonderfully over-the-top shenanigans that follow are catnip for the Bourne crowd, with subcutaneous implants, listening stations, dead drops, black sites, gunplay, double agents, naval battles, countersurveillance hocus-pocus and gadgets galore. And the human intelligence is even more captivating. I'll take good dialogue over exploding pens any day, but Thomson doesn't ask readers to choose.
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collection "Alien vs. Predator" and a forthcoming book of criticism, "Equipment for Living."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun