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.