The Digital Plague, by Jeff Somers

Jeff Somers – The Digital Plague
Orbit, 2008, 342pp, £6.99, ISBN 978-1-84149-704-4

Avery Cates is an assassin who has made it to the top. He is personally inconvenienced and professionally mortified when he is abducted by persons unknown, injected with a substance unknown and released into the wild again. Shortly after, people around him start getting ill and dying. The reader is a little (but only a little) ahead of him in working out that he might be the cause of this thanks to the injection of whatever-it-was. There were echoes, briefly, of the classic noir film D.O.A. – but the hero of that movie’s response wasn’t “I was going to have to kill a whole lot of people.”

Thereafter the plot expands relentlessly, logically and with a high body count, expanding on the world created in Somers’s The Electric Church. Reading that first book isn’t necessary, but those who have (I hadn’t) might get an extra layer of enjoyment. The injection is the digital plague of the title, an ingenious little nanotechnology device intended to bring down civilisation and further the aims of some convincingly and enjoyably barking mad bad guys.

I only had two hiccups with the logic of this future world. Psionic powers of telekinesis and compulsion are recognised and acknowledged, but the nanotech of the plague takes people by surprise; and rather than use aeroplanes, or helicopters, or even dirigibles, all of which are reasonably controllable if a malfunction occurs, they use anti-gravity-based hovers which fall like a brick out of the sky at least twice in the course of the narrative.

The plot is pure science fiction, in that if you removed the science fiction it would make no sense at all. The underlying technology doesn’t exist in our world and the logic behind it would be groundless. Jeff Somers’s story could only exist in the world that Somers has created. Ten out of ten for story telling and world building.

What I disliked was that it’s a really, really, really grim world. The only concern of anyone with power or authority is to keep that power or authority. Cates has made a success of himself, in that he started as a street punk who would rub out anyone on a freelance basis, and is now fully professional. He still kills people, which is the bottom line. There is no way out. There is no beauty or elegance or creativity and no chance of anything ever being better.

Cates himself isn’t entirely happy about this and does have a vague notion he should help keep civilisation going and defeat the plague. There is no real sense of why he should do so, apart from the general precept that it’s better to be alive and human than a reanimated zombie. Normally I wouldn’t argue, but having seen what it means to be alive and human here, I’m not so sure. This world has no redeeming features and nothing worth living for. There’s a plague coming? Bring it on.