The end is near — although it’s anyone’s guess which threat will wipe out humanity first.
Will global war do us in? Or catastrophic climate change? Or a pandemic?
In James Abel’s debut military/medical thriller, White Plague, you can pick your poison, because each danger rears its ugly head in the span of a few action-packed days.
Joe Rush, a jack-of-all-trades Marine colonel and bioterror expert, is the hero who buys us all a little more time on this planet.
He treks to the Arctic with top-secret orders to recover a stranded U.S. submarine — or to scuttle the state-of-the-art vessel if there’s any chance of the Chinese or Russian navy getting to it first.
He has to keep his head and keep the peace during a dangerous showdown with a Chinese sub.
And above all else, he must contain a viral outbreak so contagious and so deadly that, if allowed to spread beyond the isolated crew of the USS Montana, it would claim hundreds of millions of lives.
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of White Plague is the revelation that the biggest threat to our future might be one we can’t negotiate with. We can prevent cold-war differences with another nation from escalating into a hot war. But we can’t talk sense to a mutant flu strain that wants to infect everybody.
Whenever Rush finds time to catch his breath between cliffhanger exploits, the author explains to us that climate change — and specifically the melting away of permafrost in the Arctic — has created the very real possibility of long-lost pathogens being released anew.
Among them could be bugs for which we have no immunity.
Abel suggests it’s not a matter of if another Spanish Flu-like epidemic, which killed 3 to 5 percent of the world’s population a century ago, could happen. It’s a matter of when it will happen.
James Abel is the pen name for a New York-based journalist and author who has written extensively about the Arctic. His work has appeared in such publications as Smithsonian, Outside, Parade and Reader’s Digest and he has been a consultant to 60 Minutes on Arctic issues.
That said, it should come as no surprise that White Plague’s best moments involve the rescue mission aboard a Coast Guard icebreaker into frigid northern waters and then the perilous trek over icy terrain and through unforgiving weather conditions to the damaged sub and infected crew.
The author’s familiarity with the territory, a corner of the world that very few of us have experienced firsthand, makes those passages ring true.
But White Plague does have some shortcomings, most notably a conspiracy ending that rings false and takes away from the fine work elsewhere in the book.
It’s clear that the author has read every Clive Cussler adventure novel, every Tom Clancy military thriller, every Robin Cook medical mystery. He has studied the formulas carefully and he expertly replicates the wisecracking characters and the breakneck pace.
In Joe Rush, Abel also has created a series hero whose job can take him anywhere in the world to combat a wide variety of medical crises and bioterrorist attacks.
What he has failed to do, alas, is to establish his own unique voice in the pages of this book, one that will make the release of the next Joe Rush thriller an event readers eagerly anticipate.
White Plague is a pleasant way for Cussler/Clancy/Cook fans to spend a few days. But it’s not an important book or the introduction to the next giant of the genre.
by James Abel
Audiobook: Penguin Audio, $40; narrated by actor Ray Porter.