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Doom is a hot topic these days. Between climate change and a world economic meltdown just a few years ago, grim sci-fi visions of dystopia are easy to come by. The Virus Chronicles, by Michael Acosta and D.C.-area scientist Eric Donaldson, depicts an earth crashing and burning due to the wildfire spread of a lethal superbug from outer space, which kills rapidly and across nature’s kingdoms—not only do people drop dead, but so do crops and livestock. And if that weren’t enough doom for you, the outbreak causes humanity to spin out of control into tribal barbarism, killing more people than the virus, which wipes out hundreds of millions, while survivors slaughter each other for food. If this sounds like the stuff of pulp fiction, well, it is—and very readable too.
But The Virus Chronicles is also a tale of military power gone way awry. From the epidemic’s start—with the army hunting CDC scientists, to the novel’s litany of the military’s true-life, hair-raising crimes in bioweapons research—The Virus Chronicles depicts an out-of-control and sinister force, headed up by the Pentagon. Indeed, the hero is a former government virologist so leery of Big Brother that he lives totally off the grid, while the novel’s most vicious villain embodies a psychotic military cult of death. “Doctor, if I had you on my team, we could have destroyed civilization years ago,” jokes the one bioweapons scientist who hasn’t gone totally dark. This theme of military power abused is what pulls the novel back from the deep recesses of extreme corn.
In fact, The Virus Chronicles might have been stronger if, instead of outer space, the virus sprang from a government bioweapons lab, as the hero initially surmises. I’m not sure why the authors decided to pull this punch; maybe—hopefully—because they know that no such super-virus is anywhere close to being available.
This portrait of the military run amok distracts from a serviceable but sometimes unremarkable prose and from how the characterization occasionally misses a beat. In one instance, a character is confronted with a new dilemma, but the reaction is depicted as if it’s a long-standing problem. Still, the novel’s doomed landscape of looting, starvation, plague, and despair is vividly presented. Lunatic cults spring up, which even martial law cannot quell. “Almost forty thousand people converted that afternoon, and the rest were gunned down…” Meanwhile, those who escape these insane zealots “wandered the lands until they were eventually killed by other groups of violent and desperate vagabonds.” In the midst of this apocalypse, a small band of scientists thread their way to a secret lab to attempt a treatment and a cure. But the clock is ticking: implacable military fanatics pursue them and, even worse, every one of them is already infected.
Though The Virus Chronicles presents an imaginary world with a distinct novelistic and cinematic genealogy—akin to post-apocalyptic pop culture fare like The Water Knife, The Road, 12 Monkeys, Helix, and The Walking Dead—what makes this book even more disturbing is that its authors write from the source (you know, if all this were to actually go down): Acosta is a United States Naval Academy retiree, while Donaldson works in a government lab.
Their novel’s frightening undercurrent is swift and strong: namely, that bioweapons research has been with us a long time, has a grisly secret history, and all it would take is one accidental plague—given climate change and the probability of another economic collapse—to crumble the already rotting edifice of consumer capitalism into chaos.