Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Reading: Infected, by Scott Sigler

Something has gotten inside you. It entered through your eyes and has lodged itself into your brain. It torments your every waking moment and turns all your dreams into nightmares. It grows and grows, feeding on your mind like the ichneumon wasp larva feeds on its caterpillar host. And now it's squirming...

You've been infected — by Infected.

Horror writer Scott Sigler is a pioneering author of podcast novels. Infected was the first of his novels to make it into print.

The movie-friendly high concept: The Andromeda Strain meets Alien. Sure enough, there's a deal to make a movie out of it. Sigler says the script is already in the works.

Some kind of pathogen is turning ordinary people into blood-crazed mass murderers. While the CIA (agent on the case: hardened veteran Dew Phillips) and the Centers for Disease Control (point woman: epidemiologist Margaret Montoya) are hot on the case, one host in particular, former football star, finds that he's been infected by who knows what. Then the triangles appear. Which turn out to be a group of parasitic organisms, of extraterrestrial origin as it turns out. And then the voices begin. And the parasites have plans...

No, I'm not revealing any spoilers.

Now, I'm not easy to scare. The only scene that really pushed my button was the big murder scene, and that made me angry rather than horrified (it's a personal thing). But even I found it really, really creepy: malevolent alien parasites living inside you like the ichneumon wasp larvae eating the caterpillar from inside (which Sigler cites), feeding on not only your body but your mind.

Infected is a sophisticated manifestation of a genre hybrid common especially in movies, science-fiction horror. You can see echoes of its theme as far back as, say, Them! and the "giant mutant critter" subgenre it spawned (pun intended), or that most bizarre of the alien-invasion subgenre, Fiend Without a Face. But the SF-horror thriller it most resembles is Alien (along with its SF-horror-action sequel Aliens). There are also obvious echoes here of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with its Cold War paranoia.

Another set of major influences on Infected that I can see include Michael Crichton's novel The Andromeda Strain, which involves a plague of extraterrestrial origin, and the series of medical thrillers by Robin Cook that take off from that (without the extraterrestrial origin, of course), starting with Outbreak. The latter brings in the Centers for Disease Control, a US government agency that plays a huge role in Infected. One major influence is certainly 28 Days Later, which involves a biowarfare agent with similar effect to Infected's alien parasites.

If you look carefully, you may see the deep influence of H. P. Lovecraft. Like Alien in particular, Infected replaces Lovecraft's evil gods with alien monsters. But the sense of a malevolent universe is the same.

And don't forget all those "mad slasher" movies you saw in your teens. One that may be especially relevant is A Nightmare on Elm Street and its sequels, in which a psycho killer lynched for child murder comes back to kill a fresh new batch of victims through their dreams. My own recurring idea of the "bodyjacker" is similar, even if it came more through cyberpunk. There's also resemblances to the David Cronenberg films Rabid and Videodrome, and the Resident Evil (Japanese name: Biohazard) videogame/media franchise.

There may be more influences. But the important thing is not to end up with something of a pastiche of your influences, but rather to create something entirely new that will become a major influence on storytellers in its own right. Sigler succeeds in pulling this off.

There appears to be a blatantly obvious political allegory encoded here. It may be deliberate, or it may simply be that Sigler relies on the hallowed genre conventions that make horror (according to no less than Stephen King, for one) perhaps the most reactionary of genres other than pornography. The archetypical horror plot: a small band of people, usually including (or made up entirely of) government agents of some kind (police, soldiers, federal agents), struggle to defeat an apparently invincible horror to which the majority of humanity are passive and helpless. I notice this because my own approach to fiction is all but opposite: I apply chaos theory, the catalyst hero, and the flash mob to the political thriller and cyberpunk science fiction. (In the scene in Black Science I'm currently writing, a flash mob armed with cellphones using Twitter take on a serial killer who's embedded himself in the local establishment like an alien parasite...) But whatever he intends, deliberately or not, Sigler does it with consummate skill and bad attitude, even throwing in a psycho killer — as one of the heroes.

Infected hooked me with its plot twists, that "what'll the author throw at us next?" quality that makes the best thrillers "unputdownable". My conclusion: it lives up to its rave reviews. And if you're not me, you'll be scared out of your wits.

There is a sequel: Contagious, which picks up where Infected leaves off. I checked out a copy at my local library. When I'm done with it, I'll record my impressions of it here.

Back to The Space Helmet Show...

No comments:

Post a Comment