Contagion (Contagion #1)

3.25 Stars

Erin Bowman
July 2018

*Review by Alexa*

It got in us

After receiving an urgent SOS from a work detail on a distant planet, a skeleton crew is dispatched to perform a standard search-and-rescue mission.

Most are dead.

But when the crew arrives, they find an abandoned site, littered with rotten food, discarded weapons…and dead bodies.

Don’t set foot here again.

As they try to piece together who—or what—could have decimated an entire operation, they discover that some things are best left buried—and some monsters are only too ready to awaken.

Dearest Reader, allow me to begin by asking you a question:  how do you define science fiction, and what are the parameters a story must meet in order to be categorized as sci-fi?  I would assume most of you would answer that it must contain some type of science element, but, beyond that, what does a story need? Must it be full of technical terms? Does the setting need to be in space or the future?  What about horror and scares?  Should it have a moral or teach a lesson?  I could ask each of you individually and I guarantee I would come up with a slightly different answer for each person, and that’s part of the beauty of a genre like sci-fi: it lacks a concrete definition and so is allowed to be fluid.  Sci-fi can be scary or sedate, action packed or slow, moral and thought provoking or just plain entertainment…it’s all fair game.  One thing, however, that science fiction absolutely should never be is boring. I would argue that dullness is one—if not the—cardinal sin of the genre. Erin Bowman’s Contagion breaks that most sacred of rules.  If I had to use only one word to describe the book it would simply be “meh.”  I guess that’s technically more of a sound rather than a word, but you get the idea.

He could hear it. Everything.  The screeching metal and the crash of colliding bodies and the blast of the engineer’s gun.

Let me begin by saying that Contagion isn’t a bad book. In fact, nothing in it is bad per se; it’s just that nothing about it is that great either (except the cover…that cover is just lovely).  The world building is arguably the strongest aspect of the story, and definitely the only aspect that kept me engaged.  The universe that Bowman constructs is familiar and based in a reality that we, the reader, can relate to and feel comfortable within.  By the end of the book I had a solid understanding of the universe’s culture, up to and  including its hierarchies and politics.  Politics is an aspect of life that YA science fiction often overlooks, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it so included here.  After all, if there was a scientific breakthrough or alien life form or some such thing in the real world governments would be absolutely scrambling to take control of it, which is why it is always a bit disheartening to find politics/government left out of so many sci-fi tales.  I applaud Bowman for not only including it, but also for making it such an integral part of her planned duology.  So, setting and world building are the most successful aspect of the story, but even those are a bit lacking.  For instance, the planet that we find ourselves on for most of the action is supposed to be ominous and foreboding, but it just doesn’t quite get there. Rather than feeling like the planet is another character playing an integral part in the plot (which it seemed to be going for) it just came across as a dark and windy.

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The characters are another main piece of the puzzle that fall short of the goal.  They are all well fleshed out and relatable, and their actions make sense and serve a distinct purpose within their own motivations…but I didn’t care about any of them.  At no point was I concerned that one character or the other would live or die and, while their motivations made sense and were well thought out, I didn’t care enough about any of the characters to want to learn their motivations. The likeable characters were agreeable enough, and the dislikable ones were unpleasant if not a bit generic, but they never push beyond that.  There was simply no one that I liked enough to root for and, conversely, no one that I despised.  Basically, ‘meh.’

It got in us and most are dead. Decklan flew for help.  Don’t trust the kid.

The story itself is the most disappointing part because it had such potential.  These characters are living in a nightmare grounded in plausibility. The idea of the story is disturbing and should feel claustrophobic, eerie, heartbreaking, and horrifying…but it doesn’t.  It wants to, and it really, truly tries to, but it just never gets there.  I want to keep stressing that it isn’t a bad story; it just isn’t an exciting one no matter how badly it wants to live up to that expectation.  There was enough going on to keep me reading, but I did a lot of skimming, and I kept checking to see how many pages were left (never a sign of a good book).  I will concede that the story got distinctly—although predictably—more interesting in the last few pages, and my hope is that the second half of Bowan’s duology continues in that vain.

Regardless of how lackluster the book is overall, there are a few things that I loved and highly applaud. My personal favorite: no YA tropes! This book has a distinct lack of instalove, love triangles, enemies into lovers, illogical girl-on-girl hate, damsel in distress, etc.  In fact, this book is chock full of strong and intelligent ladies kicking ass (although that doesn’t mean they aren’t flawed or don’t make horrible decisions, because they absolutely are and they absolutely do).  Bowman also ensures that her story is full of representation: LGBTQ+, POC, men, women, young, old…everyone is welcome at Bowman’s party.

Thea used to find similar moments in horror movies comical, but now she wished it was that simple; that this graveyard of a ship was nothing more than a scene in a film.

One last thing, there is a small, but I think rather important, detail that is thrown in during one of the scenes that I am very curious about.  In fact, this detail is probably what is going to convince me to read the second book (it involves a name).  Whether the detail is part of Bowman’s master plan or something that she threw in just to be provocative remains to be seen, but either way it did its job.  I’ll keep things cryptic to avoid spoilers, but if anyone has an idea of what I’m talking about and wants to speculate with me feel free (I love to speculate)!

Contagion is, for me at least, a book that wanted to be so much more than it was capable of being.  Nearly every aspect of the book—setting, plot, pacing, characters, etc—fell short of where I’m sure Bowman wanted them to land. This book wanted to be as captivating and tense as an episode of Black Mirror, but landed more in the realm of Deep Space Nine.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts!  Agree? Disagree? Think I’m a science fiction snob?  Tell me all about it in the comments!

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