"County offers a bouquet of twists in this novel, with a botany-focused plot that suggests an intricate rethink of Murray Leinster’s classic 1946 short story “The Plants.” The author includes clever whodunit aspects, as well as the worldview of a rooted, chlorophyll-based society that communicates via odor and chemical secretions."– Kirkus Reviews
A mysterious color covers the lone survivor of a party that encountered an extradimensional entity—and drastically affects the group investigating the enigma.
In this sci-fi novel, an Antarctic expedition faces an incredible, shimmering four-dimensional cube (a “tesseract,” as readers of A Wrinkle in Time may remember) with disastrous results. Three explorers vanish in a void while devoutly religious photojournalist Barry Fletcher survives with a weird, growing colored patch on his body that drains hues from everything as it increases. At the behest of the U.S. military (which senses weaponization potential), Fletcher is placed in a high-tech quarantine lab. He is under the potentially deadly watch of tough Sgt. Miles Reardon, a veteran Marine sniper who, being colorblind, is assumed (correctly) to be somewhat immune to whatever entity possesses Fletcher. Eventually, the syndrome is labeled “the taint” by the rest of the study team, a diverse bunch that includes a bereaved psychiatrist, a professional magician/skeptic secretly hoping for a supernatural event, and a doctor (already turned gray by the phenomenon) imagining medical breakthroughs. As Fletcher’s Christianity grows more fanatical with the belief that he is literally a new messiah, the group’s grip on reality falls prey to the force behind the taint. County (The Scent of Distant Worlds, 2019, etc.) neatly plays with reader expectations about whether the thing represents good or evil—or just reflects the failings, lusts, and yearnings of its badly flawed human hosts. The author delivers a weighty, intricate, and intriguing thriller, mostly set in a claustrophobic isolation lab. While very much its own animal, the novel may recall for many sci-fi readers elements of Michael Crichton (especially The Andromeda Strain and Sphere) mated with H.P. Lovecraft cosmic awe (The taint is pretty much a literal “Colour Out of Space,” after all). But County lacks Lovecraft’s penchant for eldritch horror and philosophical pessimism and blissfully avoids Crichton’s tendency toward silicon wafer–thin characterizations. County even pulls off a satisfying ending from a situation that would have painted most writers into a corner (fourth-dimensional or otherwise).
A tricky, dense, and suspenseful first-contact tale that successfully works a mind-expanding premise in a confined setting.
In County’s (Oasis at the Bottom of the Sea, 2015, etc.) sci-fi yarn, a scientist on a deep-space mission to exploit a distant planet discovers that alien plant groves may be sentient, intelligent, and hostile.
On a future, overpopulated Earth, exobiologist Cassie Clearwater, the granddaughter of a Seminole shaman, joins the first interstellar space expedition. The ship, called the Far Traveler, uses a revolutionary, superfast propulsion drive, provided by the powerful MicroWeight Corporation, to visit a habitable planet 12-and-a-half light years away. Its profile suggests diamond-rich geology and colonization potential. Cassie must establish whether the alien life there is intelligent, which would render the world off-limits. But there’s greed and subterfuge afoot on the Far Traveler. Even Cassie conceals a secret—her pregnancy by fellow astronaut Jonas Jefferson, son of ruthless MicroWeight tycoon Tobias Jefferson. After landing, the team does find diamonds—but also groves of mushroom-shaped growths and burrowing creatures that spit powerful acid. When something pulls Jonas into a mudbank, the remaining humans prepare for hostilities. The narrative then shifts to tell the story from the perspectives of the alien plants. They are indeed sentient, with a rich heritage to match that of humanity, whom they regard as grotesque “monsters.” When Jonas reappears, resurrected and altered, only Cassie is brave enough to avert a tragedy for both species. County offers a bouquet of twists in this novel, with a botany-focused plot that suggests an intricate rethink of Murray Leinster’s classic 1946 short story “The Plants.” The author includes clever whodunit aspects, as well as the worldview of a rooted, chlorophyll-based society that communicates via odor and chemical secretions. Some may find it overly precious that plant characters bear the names of herbs (Pepper, Sage, Tarragon); also, the human characters include a gangster-ish Russian and a libidinous, Asian dragon lady caricature. However, the book asserts that MicroWeight calculatingly loaded the Far Traveler with international ethnic stereotypes as a public relations move: “Reverse political correctness. A blatant appeal to the sensibilities of the masses instead of the intelligencia.” Aspects of Native American mysticism make an unsteady entrance but pay off well.
An uneven first-contact thriller that adroitly handles its ecological themes.