My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
An airplane lands at a desolate airport in a remote Colorado ski town. On board, Dr. Lyle Martin, a world-class infectious disease specialist, is brusquely awakened to shocking news: everyone not on the plane appears to be dead. A lethal new kind of virus may have surfaced, threatening our survival, and now Martin—one of the most sought after virologists on the planet until his career took a precipitous slide—is at the center of the investigation.
The symptoms are the most confounding the experienced doctor has ever seen. Is it the work of terrorists? A biological attack? A natural occurrence? As word of the deadly sickness spreads, panic leads to violence and chaos. Armed and terrified partisans and patriots, stoked by technology and social media, have dug in, unknowingly creating fertile ground for the deadly syndrome Dr. Martin has begun to identify.
As the globe begins to unravel and paranoia and hatred take hold, Martin is forced to face a question as terrifying as this syndrome itself: is the world better left unsaved?
Warning: There are major spoilers in the review below. For a spoiler-edited version, read here.
“A man in an orange jumpsuit, lying on the ground beside a luggage transporter; two other workers toppled upon each other; a desolate hangar to the right; and the clincher–inside the window of a small airport, a half-dozen would-be passengers or staff. Motionless.
‘As near as we can tell,’ Eleanor said. ‘Everyone out there is dead.'”
Dead on Arrival is not, as I initially expected, Plague Inc.: The Novelisation. It’s also not, as I expected a fifth of the way through, a zombie story. It is a high-octane combination of jump scare and Lovecraftian horror, interspersed with a refined if not unique perspective on our world today. In that sense, it’s truly a novel of the Information Age.
By no means is this a perfect book. But, in my opinion, it fulfils nearly to a tee the criteria that make for a good thriller. The opening chapters raise a plethora of questions, not the least of which is plainly ‘What the hell is going on’, and from there on the pace is tight until the end. I was never bored throughout the duration of reading; I often had to cover the last page of a chapter to stop myself from skipping ahead and seeing the inevitable twist. Some of those twists are admittedly cheaper nothing burgers, but in many places they defy expectations in the best of ways.
To explain just how much Dead on Arrival captivated me, it took two of my least favourite plot devices, non-linear timelines and amnesia, and made me not mind–or even enjoy–them. I’ve avoided reading books before solely because they contain messy chronology, but this book doesn’t use flashbacks as a lazy method of exposition. Rather, the “three years ago” timeline has a life of its own, with characters and mysteries as significant as those in the present day. Indeed, when the elements of the two meet in the last section, it’s a hugely rewarding payoff. The ending? Without revealing any spoilers, it was close enough to what I thought would happen but utterly unpredictable on the how, such that it kept me guessing to the end. And with spoilers: The Well-Intentioned Extremist may be beaten to death in the genre, but this novel’s villain is a surprisingly refreshing take on the trope. Not least, I suspect, because she’s a woman with a villainous crush.
The concept of technology’s dark side has been alive for as long as technology itself, with the most extreme critics declaring innovation across the board to be evil. What I find impressive about Dead on Arrival is that it tackles the problems spawned by technology without attacking technology itself, providing a mostly even-handed overview of its effects on societal polarisation. Yes, it’s a popcorn novel and of course you shouldn’t read too much into it (as I am now), but I consider the concept well-executed considering how much of the plot is built around it.
I’m going to talk about the characters for a moment here. We’ve got, first of all, Dr. Lyle Martin, the overall protagonist and main narrator of the present day. Maybe I differ from other readers in that I find him more compelling than the average hero in a thriller. He’s a disgraced, disillusioned doctor whose mental issues are always just unsettling enough to leave you wondering at the reliability of his narration. At the same time, it’s clear that he’s absolutely brilliant. Nowadays, it’s all too easy to make the eccentric genius character into, for lack of a better word, an asshole. Lyle Martin may be an asshole sometimes, but unlike most other such characters in popular fiction, he’s also strangely sympathetic, even if you sometimes want to face palm at his inability to articulate himself clearly.
Then there’s Jackie Badger, main narrator of the timeline three years ago. She is herself an analytical prodigy, yet firmly relatable as she gradually unearths the secrets of Silicon Valley. There’s not much more I can say about her without giving out spoilers, but she is definitely hiding some secrets of her own–it wouldn’t be a thriller otherwise, would it? (I was with her up until almost the end. Even at the meeting when she framed Alex. Goddamnit, Jackie, why.)
Read it. Just read it and find out, and no matter what, don’t skip ahead.