Here’s a novel about the pandemic COVID-19 might have been and could still become. And something much like the nightmarish scenario it portrays could still come about in any one of innumerable other ways, given the endless resourcefulness of our microscopic foes, who are the world’s most populous inhabitants. As I write, many of us are hopeful that today’s pandemic is drawing to a close. Whether or not this proves to be true (and I am skeptical), the future pandemic that emerges tomorrow, or next year, or a decade from now, still represents the most likely dystopian scenario faced by the human race—the climate crisis notwithstanding. In Phase Six, Jim Shepherd drives this point home in his convincing description of an ancient bacterial pathogen that emerges from under the ice of West Greenland and sets off to conquer the Earth.
An unlikely place for a pandemic to start
Shepherd’s story begins as two pre-adolescent boys in a small Native Greenland village head out onto the ice for adventure. In the vicinity of a new rare-earth mine, Aleq and Malik stumble across a rock unearthed by the miners. In short order, Malik becomes ill with a fever that causes him to sweat. Soon, he begins shaking, more and more violently. He is dead within days. And so, it seems, are all the other eighty people of the village—with a single exception. Aleq, who first touched the rock has somehow come away unscathed. Thus, he becomes the center of attention for the CDC team sent to the town of Ililussat in Greenland, and eventually of the whole world.
Phase Six by Jim Shepherd (2021) 257 pages ★★★★☆
A convincing portrayal of a future pandemic
The two CDC investigators are both young women, chosen because at first their bosses expected little from their trip. The methods they use to trace the origin and course of the pathogen follow a path familiar to many of us who have lived with COVID-19. Jeannine Dziri, an epidemiologist, and Danice Torrone, an MD specializing in infectious disease, are both brilliant, resourceful, and hardworking. But their biggest challenge is one of communications. Either Aleq is Patient Zero, or he knows who is. But he’s not talking. He’s clearly in shock. Patiently working with a Danish translator, Jeannine takes on the top-priority job of persuading the boy to tell what he saw, and when. The breakthrough comes only when in desperation she calls in an ex-boyfriend who is a social worker experienced in working with children. Aleq at length provides her and Danice with the clue they need to begin to understand the disease. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the CDC, several of the miners have spread across the world on two weeks of home leave, and the disease has gone global, with millions dying.
A powerful, character-driven story
Shepherd is a gifted novelist. In The Book of Aron, he poignantly portrays the life of an adolescent boy in the Warsaw Ghetto. Shepherd is known for the depth of his research, and it shows plainly in Phase Six. His portrayal of the Native lifestyle and culture is compelling. He discusses in easily understandable language the science behind the pandemic that erupts. And he portrays the desperation among the medical staff of a hospital in Rochester, New York, where the disease surfaces early. But he is at his best in conveying the subtle qualities of the principal characters in his story. An eleven-year-old Native Greenland boy and the CDC scientists who befriend him come across as equally human and believable.
That curious title
The title, by the way, holds double meaning. Jeannine Dziri has a “theory of Relationship Phases, with phase 1 being that first buzz of interest, phase 2 that initial excitement about what you had in common, phase 3 the exhilaration at your capacity for merger, phase 4 those aspects of the gift you started to take for granted, phase 5 the initial demonstrations with other people that you didn’t have your partner’s back, and phase 6 when you started thinking, Maybe the problem is me.” Meanwhile, for the World Health Organization, Phase 6 is the highest pandemic level, “designating for anyone who might have missed it by this point that a global pandemic was officially under way.”
About the author
American novelist and short story writer Jim Shepherd teaches creative writing and film at Williams College. Born in Connecticut in 1956, he holds degrees from Trinity College and Brown University. His wife, Karen Shepherd, is also a novelist. As of 2021, Shepherd has published eight novels.
For more reading
This is one of The best books of 2021.
Previously I reviewed Jim Shepherd’s outstanding 2015 novel, The Book of Aron (A brilliant novel of the Warsaw Ghetto).
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- The top 10 dystopian novels reviewed here
- The ultimate guide to the all-time best science fiction novels
- 10 top science fiction novels (plus lots of runners-up)
- Seven new science fiction authors worth reading
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