I can’t imagine a worse time than now, in the middle of a worldwide health crisis, for releasing a novel about an epidemic that becomes a pandemic. But that’s just what Jim Shepard’s publishers have done with his new novel Phase Six. According to his publisher, Shepard completed the novel “before COVID-19 even emerged.”
If that’s true, Shepard returned to his manuscript and added a dozen specific references and other direct allusions to COVID-19. It seems that Shepard planned his novel as a cautionary story about a possible approaching pandemic and then refashioned it as a novel that warns about revisiting and re-committing the mistakes of the past, that is, the mistakes made in dealing with COVID-19.
A tightly-written, well-researched, and suspenseful novel, Phase Six is set about five years after COVID-19. The story begins on the western coast of Greenland in the Disko Bay area during a burial in a village called Ilimanaq, where people are dying from an unknown virus or bacteria—no one is quite sure. Two boys, about 11, Aleq and his friend Malik, attend the burial, but they’re more interested, like the other boys in the village, in exploring around the cool, nearby mine and following the miners. Shepard suggests that the miners are responsible for unleashing the disease. He writes:
What health professionals label as pathogens are just microbes exploiting a new resource but otherwise doing what they’ve been doing for three billion years: feeding, growing, and spreading. Under optimal conditions they can double their numbers every half hour. They don’t die until something kills them, and they thrive everywhere and have been brought up alive from the bottom of the Marianas Trench, from beneath ice a mile thick in Antarctica, and from strata 140 million years old in a drill core two miles deep. Left to their own devices, most reside unnoticed in biological balance with their ecosystems. But what location on earth remains left to its own devices?
Certainly not this Greenland mining site.
Shepard implies that the miners have dredged up microbes from miles under the Earth’s crust and have infected themselves and everyone they come in contact with. Not only does Bluejay Mining, based in London and Frankfurt, own the mine near tiny Ilimanaq, Aleq has heard that the company has an even larger mine on Disko Island.
Shepard adds irony to a bleak situation when he describes the mines as a way of promoting the “green economy,” because “80 percent of the rare earth deposits would be used in wind turbines, hybrid cars, and lasers, so the pitch became ‘Global Warming and Greenland: We’re Part of the Solution.’” With that public relations spin, Bluejay Mining began its nickel-copper-platinum-cobalt-sulfide project in an area that had already been subjected to more than three decades of mining exploration.
Miners come and go, unknowingly spreading the disease locally, which spreads exponentially throughout Greenland. What’s more, Shepard depicts the five of them and their foreman taking an Air Greenland flight to Reykjavík, Iceland, and infecting the passengers flying to other parts of the world.
Here is the depressing scene:
All six, as they dawdled from one end of the Keflavík airport to the other, generated, with their sneezing and coughing and throat clearing, particle mists so fine that the microbe-laden aerosols could sail many hundreds of meters on the tiny air currents generated by the airport’s air-conditioning system until they settled and stuck. Then they hitched rides on the next hands to come along and encounter those surfaces, as part of a microbial passenger list so teeming that the bacteria along for those rides outnumbered in each individual their total sum of human cells.
Back in Ilimanaq, Malik, whose early symptoms include a runny nose, a sore throat, a persistent cough, and trouble breathing, becomes another of the disease’s victims, along with his family. Aleq’s family is infected and wiped out too, but Aleq, who has symptoms like Malik’s and the other victims, seems to have a certain unknown resistance to the disease, although he does become very sick.
Soon, but not soon enough, the World Health Organization sends its communicable disease expert for Northern Europe to Greenland; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sends doctors Jeannine Dziri and Danice Torrone. Danice would be the lab wonk and doctor and Jeannine the epidemiologist. Jeannine had been “the center of every cocktail party conversation for a while following the COVID-19 pandemic,” and she strikes me as the much younger, female, fictional counterpart to Doctor Anthony Fauci, though he’s never mentioned.
Danice remains in Greenland doing her studies and treating patients but has very little help, since doctors, nurses, and other aides become sick and die along with many of the patients. But Jeannine and Aleq go to Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana, where the boy is cared for, studied, and probed for information.
Social and political clusterfucks abound. Fox News declares the pandemic “APOCALYPSE II,” but spreads misinformation faster than the disease itself spreads. After 35 days, 14 million people worldwide are infected. Shepard writes,
The WHO, which had followed its global alert with a series of travel warnings and then a series of travel bans, and then a series of situation bulletins, on day thirty-six finally ceased its foot-dragging and upped its announced pandemic level to Phase 6, its highest, designating for anyone who might have missed it by this point that a global pandemic was officially under way.
I generally enjoy realism in fiction and realistic endings, but, man, here fiction and reality are too alike for me. The locales, whether Disko Bay, Ilimanaq, and Ilulissat in Greenland, or Hamilton in the US, are all real towns. Rocky Mountain Labs is an actual NIH Facility for biomedical research. Shepard’s fictional hospital and medical staff often run out of masks and goggles and surgical gloves and reuse their gowns. This all sounds eerily similar to the plight of hospitals during the first several months of COVID-19. Likewise, lockdowns, fictional and real, begin in ICUs and spread all over the world. Just like with COVID-19, “When medicine collided with culture, medicine lost.” Advisory boards are formed consisting of political appointees and actual virologists at a ratio of 190:3. Politicians and Fox News continue to spread misinformation, and Shepard writes that things that were supposed to change after COVID-19 didn’t. “As in so many instances in American politics, after the lesson had been learned nothing had been done about it.” The ending of Phase Six offers little hope. About the only encouraging aspect of the story is the implied prediction that we survived COVID-19. Shepard’s fictional world doesn’t seem to be so lucky with its second pandemic. Will we? Phase Six is a very good and worthy book. But, damn, this was one tough read. Buy Shepard’s book. Just wait a while before you read it.