It took me a while to get this whole reading thing going again, and I figured what would finally jumpstart it would be a good old goofy disease thriller. Folks, I was not wrong. According to my e-reader’s stats, it took me a little over five hours to finish this book, and that seems about right.
The plot starts out very similar to Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain: Some kind of organism has hitched a ride back to earth after getting mutated in space and has had the fortune to land near a small settlement. Havoc ensues, the government shows up, a sample is taken back For Science (oh the hubris), and then bad things spiral out from there. But basically after the sample is put into storage, the two stories deviate until the very end where they kind of join up again for a second. I found Cold Storage to be the more enjoyable of the two, if you’re wondering.
Cold Storage is the story of two pairs of people and one nasty fungus. The first pair, Major Roberto Diaz and Lt. Colonel Trini Romano of the USAF, are the ones who find a mutated strain of Cordyceps fungus that has broken out in a remote township in Western Australia in 1987. This strain was originally sent up on Skylab and then returned after being exposed to something in space that made it extra bad, when Skylab broke up. Now, the video game players among you may recognize Cordyceps as the fungus that caused all the zombies in 2013’s The Last of Us, so this little guy has been kicking around in the cultural zeitgeist for a minute. It’s a real thing, and it’s scary as all hell, which is why science fiction authors enjoy toying with the concept of it getting into humans.
After some plot beats that are similar to, but much grosser than, the Piedmont section of The Andromeda Strain, our two soldiers take the sample to the titular cold storage facility in Atchison, Kansas and largely leave the book to our second pair in the present day, Travis “Teacake” Meacham and Naomi Williams, two night shift security guards at Atchison Storage. Yes, in the intervening years, the government facility where our fungal friend has been living in subbasement 4 has been decommissioned and privatized and is now a commercial storage facility. I wish this were hard to believe.
We spend a lot more time with Teacake and Naomi than we did with Roberto and Trini, so we get to know them better. Teacake is your typical good kid who makes dumb decisions — a fast talker, smarter than he realizes, trapped in a small town with not a lot to do except get into trouble. He’s done a stint in the Navy and a stint in jail and now he’s working nights for a colossal dumbass named Griffin at the storage unit. Naomi is also a smart girl who got pregnant with her high school boyfriend, a colossal dumbass named Mike, and is now trying to get through college to become a vet while picking up shifts and raising her daughter. Teacake is immediately attracted and immediately creepy, but I have to say he redeems himself fairly well in a book written by the guy who has brought you scripts for several Hollywood male-driven action blockbusters.
The plot beats happen about as you expect — Cordyceps breaks out, people are infected, gross things happen, a doomsday scenario is contemplated, old heroes come out of retirement, clandestine moves are made, a nuke comes into play (because of course it does; see The Andromeda Strain), everything ties up okay in the end.
This is not a very long book — the print version is 320 pages — and it moves quickly. It reads like a screenplay, which is no surprise since David Koepp is mainly a screenwriter and director. This was his first book, and you can tell he had the film in mind while writing it, which with this genre isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually a longer book page-wise than The Andromeda Strain, but it feels a lot shorter. Where Crichton’s book gets bogged down in bureaucratic maneuvering and the nuances of decontamination zones, Cold Storage just zips. There’s a lot more doing and less description. You get enough about the main characters to care a bit about them, and a few of the more minor characters are really more interesting than they need to be given their roles (Griffin the asshole boss is written so vividly that I thoroughly enjoyed everything that happened to him). Put some good actors in there and you’d have a credible little disaster flick (though sadly not one that Gerard Butler could star in unless you rewrite Roberto, which would be uncool).
My one quibble with the book as a whole is Koepp’s decision to basically anthropomorphize Cordyceps novus. Throughout he alludes to the fungus being a “good learner” and “enjoying the taste of human” and “knowing just who to call” regarding its symbiote. Folks, bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc. don’t possess higher brain function. Cordyceps is a remarkably nasty bugger and it does some weird shit, that’s definitely true, but it doesn’t do it because it’s thinking or applying learned knowledge and experience. I know that makes these things much less sexy to write about, because straight mutation and evolution aren’t nearly as exciting as a recognizable motivating impetus, but this got a little too goofy even for me. I think he kind of tips back a few times to say, oh obviously it wasn’t really thinking, but by that point you’ve done everything but make the thing emit a villainous cackle after it after it finds pure water, so it’s really too little too late. I know most readers and moviegoers are aware that these things don’t have brains, just like they’re aware that weather isn’t actually chasing them personally, but it’s still irritating and lazy and that alone keeps me from classifying this as sci-fi (the numerous plot holes keep it from being hard sci-fi, but those don’t make it unenjoyable).
For someone like me who enjoys disease books more than a normal person should but has a hard time getting into fiction, this was a good jumping off point. It was a fast read with decent characters and it wasn’t boring. It had a good blech factor. I’ve read some reviews that say it was written for 12 year olds and it just was too stupid, but I didn’t find that to be the case. It’s not the deepest book on the planet by any means, and it has quite a few plot holes, but for a fast read you could do worse. This is sort of like a book version of Pacific Rim: It’s kind of dumb but it’s good-natured as all hell and it moves so fast that you don’t notice a lot of the really silly stuff until it’s already zoomed past you. In fact, if he weren’t too old, Charlie Hunnam would be a pretty good Teacake.
And if you’re interested in the real Cordyceps, here‘s a pretty cool article I found related to The Last of Us on whether it could actually infect humans (short answer: not really).