Though Contagion is set in space in the distant future, and Dry is set in Southern California at a time very close to now, both books feature teens struggling to survive intense, life-threatening disasters that come dangerously close to apocalyptic.
Contagion by Erin Bowman
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.
Contagion might as well have been written with me in mind. I love the intersection of horror and science fiction, and this tale of an unwitting crew sent to investigate a distress call from a secret mining facility on a frigid, desolate planet light years from civilization–well, it is the stuff of which survival horror fans dream. From the movie Alien to the video game Dead Space to books like The Illuminae Files and Pitch Dark, Contagion is part of a long, great horror tradition. Bowman understands what makes the vast unknown of space scary and capitalizes on it with an atmosphere of intense dread; you just know going in that not all of the characters are going to survive. Because of that, most of the characters read more as red shirts than as real people, and even those characters who have viewpoint chapters (and there are several characters as the story is told in third person with a lot of head-hopping) don’t get a lot of development. Bowman quickly sets up each character’s personality and their motivation, often with an info-dump of their backstory, then sets them loose to see how the inter-party conflicts will play out. The two main characters–Nova, a pilot-in-training, and Thea, a biomedical intern–are the ones that teen readers will relate to the most; they are both surrounded by adults making terrible, selfish decisions and yet have all the power.
I think this book is less about the characters, though, and more about the mystery of what happened on this derelict planet, and why, and who knows about it and is keeping it a secret. In that sense, this book is super successful; it’s suspenseful and scary, and the multiple viewpoints help build a strong sense of paranoia and claustrophobia, since readers will see how many characters are keeping secrets from the others. I wasn’t emotionally invested in any of the characters, especially as so many of them made really dumb decisions when confronted with clear evidence of a dangerous contagion, but I did want to know the outcome of the mystery. For anyone who has read a lot of zombie outbreak novels, especially where the zombies come from an alien organism or parasite, the plot here is familiar but well-done, very fast-paced, and the infection itself perfectly gory.
The world-building outside the immediate situation on the planet is not terribly robust but is sketched in with enough detail to suggest rival political factions in the United Planetary Coalition, battling over a sustainable energy source called corrarium and other shared resources. From the ending, I would guess that Book Two will delve into the politics more.
I’d recommend this series opener to horror and science fiction fans, especially those who want a thrilling and scary book that isn’t afraid to kill off some folks. It also has a strong mystery appeal. A bonus factor in recommending this book is its inclusivity: the two main female characters are a Korean-Turkish biomedical intern and a queer black pilot, but that is not the focus on the narrative at all.
Tag line: Zombies! In! Spaaaaaace!
Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman
The drought—or the Tap-Out, as everyone calls it—has been going on for a while now. Everyone’s lives have become an endless list of don’ts: don’t water the lawn, don’t fill up your pool, don’t take long showers.
Until the taps run dry.
Suddenly, Alyssa’s quiet suburban street spirals into a warzone of desperation; neighbors and families turned against each other on the hunt for water. And when her parents don’t return and her life—and the life of her brother—is threatened, Alyssa has to make impossible choices if she’s going to survive
I had a much harder time reading Dry than Contagion, mainly because the situation was so plausible that it made me uncomfortable. Water crises have already been in the news, from the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, to the drought and water shortages in Cape Town, South Africa; and the flooding in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. What happens in Dry doesn’t seem that far-fetched, especially as the water shortage comes from a thoughtless political maneuver mixed with poor governmental planning and a lackluster media response.
Dry follows five teenagers–Alyssa, Kelton, Garrett, Jacqui, and Henry–who come together by sheer happenstance and are forced to make increasingly desperate decisions to find water. Alyssa and Garrett are siblings, and their neighbor Kelton is part of a family of doomsday preppers; when the Tap-Out happens and their neighborhood devolves into catastrophe, they find themselves without their parents and responsible for their own survival. On their journey they pick up Jacqui, a tough-talking runaway with a dangerous streak, and Henry, a wealthy jerk who upsets the group dynamic with his manipulations. The Shustermans do a solid job developing all of these teen characters and showing them empathy; even at their least likable or most insanely gullible, you understand where they’re coming from, and none of them remain unchanged by what happens over the course of this novel. (Well, maybe Henry.) Like most disaster novels, this one is really about the interpersonal conflicts that happen to a group of survivors over time.
In between the teens’ story are Snapshot sections that pull back to show the wide-ranging implications the Tap-Out has on everything from keeping the electrical power plants running; to newscasters trying to cover the story without feeling like jackals; to soldiers forced to make tough choices about the use of violence to protect the limited stores of water. These sections do break up the otherwise fast pacing but also are essential to give a greater context; they also pose difficult ethical questions to readers by showing how a variety of people react to the Tap-Out, and how those reactions affect other people, and on down the line.
I found this book utterly convincing until the ending, which has an anti-climatic time jump to some weeks after the Tap-Out ends that ties up everything a little too neatly. It’s unclear how the water crisis ended, and after all the detail that went into the picture of how it started, I would have liked a more comprehensive picture of, well, where the water came from.
I’d recommend Dry to readers who like dystopias, natural disaster stories, or intense survival stories. Even readers who like zombie survival fiction can get into this one, I think, because the sense of civilization breaking down and the focus on the dynamics of a small group of struggling survivors are essential pieces of both kinds of narratives.
Tag line: When the water runs dry, some will do anything for a drink. What will you do?
The Winner: dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman
Both Contagion and Dry are suspenseful, intense survival stories, but I give the edge to Dry. In my reading heart, I prefer parasitic space zombies over realistic depictions of man-made disasters, but I feel Dry is the better-written book, with wide teen appeal to a lot of different kinds of readers. The Shustermans’ focus on the characters made their disaster story more immediate and emotionally compelling, without sacrificing fast-paced action. I feel Contagion also suffered from too much info-dumping character backstories and world details, whereas Dry integrated important information into the story. Contagion, while entertaining, didn’t have a lasting impact the way Dry did, either. Days after reading Dry, I turned on the tap to wet my toothbrush and wash my face and realized I’d left the water running the whole time; I feel teens will be similarly aware of thoughtless water usage after reading this convincing novel.
Krista Hutley is a Teen & Adult Services Librarian at the Wilmette Public Library. She also writes reviews for Booklist magazine. When not working or reading All The Things, she’s probably geeking out over horror movies, Dungeons & Dragons, and fun new stickers for her bullet journal.