Tag Archives: thriller

Chris Holm, “Child Zero”

We got problems. The “new normal” ain’t pretty. There’s a tiny Third World nation in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. The iconic Tavern on the Green restaurant has been subsumed by the encampment. Inside the camp, everything from shigellosis to typhoid fever run rampant. Below the streets, there are countless infected rats that have created a “simmering reservoir of plague.”

There’s a new federal Department of Biological Security that has the authority to assume control of any investigation that may involve public health risk. The DBS is no joke. Its budget is larger than the Department of Defense. It’s leader reports only to the president.

Thanks to the health crisis in general and one biological terrorist in particular, wealthy New Yorkers have turned their buildings into “hermetically sealed citadels and hired private armies to protect them.” One condo tower brags that buying a unit comes with one month’s emergency food and oxygen and one year “complimentary” subscription to XODUS@ Aerial Evacuation Services.

Details like that XODUS@ touch give Chris Holm’s Child Zero a worrisome plausibility. Of course, coming off the past 25 months of weirdness—and the accompanying 1 million COVID deaths—will mean you’ll read these pages with even more of a parched throat. And as you devour the pages, you might think that the writer really seems to have grounded the story in science. I’m just going to come out and tell you to go ahead and take a pause from the action and read Holm’s thoughtful Author’s Note (at the end) and while you’re back there, check out the bibliography. Bibliography? A thriller citing scholarly references? A-yup. This bleep is possible.

But Holm has his own background in molecular biology so it’s not like he just crawled up from a simmering reservoir of wannabe thriller writers to try and scare the pants of us innocent, trying-to-get-back-to-normal readers.

The plot is built for action. No thumb-sucking allowed. It’s set a touch in the future, but you’d hardly know. (There’s even a repurposed Riker’s Island, used to heart-pounding effect. Spoiler alert: things have only gotten worse at Riker’s.) Child Zero is a detective story wrapped in a semi-dystopian hellscape. “Semi” because, well, it’s mostly poor folk who take it on the chin. The rich have options.

The bigger backdrop is that bacterial infections around the world aren’t responding to treatment. Global warming has released ancient microbes due to the thawing of earth’s surface. (This is straight out of headlines in late May, 2022 a few weeks after Child Zero was published.) There was a meningitis outbreak in Frankfurt, a wave of tuberculosis infections in New Delhi. And so on. 

Child Zero centers primarily around the work of NYPD Detective Jacob Gibson. Gibson lost his wife in the bioterrorism attack. When Jake gets dispatched, he must find a way to keep secret the fact that his daughter is ill. If the DBS discover she is hot to the touch, she could be rushed off to a state-funded sanitarium where they “tuck the dying out of sight.” Gibson’s keeps her daughter’s health status a secret. 

Gibson is called to the scene of a massacre with his partner, Amira (Amy) Hassan. The slaughter is inside the aforementioned encampment in Sheep Meadow. The victims weren’t ill, however. They were all disturbingly healthy, which makes no sense given their surroundings. Given the infested conditions in their camp, might the victims have been sitting on some kind of miracle cure?

We follow 12-year-old Mateo Rivas, a former Park City resident who was rousted from sleep one night and escaped down into those rat-infested sewers. We occasionally check in on President Marshall Whitmore and the self-centered head of DBS, Lionel Mercer. And, among others, we meet Peter Levy, an employee with the private security firm contracted to manage the Park City encampment. There’s a “cryptoanarchist collective.” There are “Soldiers of Gaia” too, who have pledged their lives to curing the planet of the “plague of humankind.” Yes, as in what happened after March of 2020, chaos begets chaos. The title of Child Zero might suggest it’s about the journey of one kid, but the novel is well populated and the mayhem is observed from a variety of points of view. The story touches on racism, classism, fascism, authoritarianism, and more. If you think COVID mask mandates were top-down, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. (Holm started work on this long before COVID-19.)

Imagine doomsday preppers on steroids, a band of fierce Mad Max survivalists, and government agencies who treat Orwell’s 1984 as a roadmap for success—and you’ve just started to grasp the extent of the many clashing aspirations in Child Zero.

Holm takes full advantage of the Big Apple setting—from wildly converted subway stops to the grim scenes at Rikers and all that water in the East River. The government and personal agendas are manifold. The action sequences are cinematic while the prose is unflashy, workmanlike, and easy to gobble up.

You could call Child Zero a cautionary tale, but that sounds much too meek. Based on all that he understands about science and bugs and mutations and medicine, Child Zero is Chris Holm screaming in our ears: wake up!