Ok, so there’s this guy and he’s dead, killed by a horde of ants. And not just any ants, no, these ones have been Frankensteined together into a devilish hybrid, one that swarms its victim, stings it into paralysis, then cuts off pieces of skin while the victim is still alive. Agent Hollis Copper, last seen recovering from the events in Zer0es, is tasked with sorting out the who, when, where, and why. He brings in Hannah Stander, a futurist consultant for the FBI with a penchant for anxiety attacks and a doomsday mindset. Hannah was raised to fear the future by her apocalypse prepper parents, but now instead of preparing to weather the end of times she aims to defend against it.
Hannah leaves the study of the little formicidae monsters to her BFF, entomologist Dr. Ez Choi, who discovers a connection to Arca Labs, a company owned by billionaire Einar Geirsson. This sends Hannah off to Arca’s secret biotech lab off the coast of Hawai’i. Nothing is what it seems at the lab, and the more holes Hannah pokes in the scientists’ stories the more terrors crawl out. It’s up to Hannah to save the world, but first she has to survive the island.
It’s no secret that I love Chuck Wendig’s books. He’s the kind of author that no matter what he writes I’ll consume it sight unseen because I know it’ll be entertaining. He writes in a style all his own, one full of intensity and fervor, like repeated shots of adrenaline. Invasive plays extensively in Michael Crichton’s sandbox, and fans of the Jurassic Park series and The Andromeda Strain will have a lot of fun here. Prepare yourself for an awful lot of Stephen King-esque body horror, not to mention the strong scent of The X-Files.
But it’s his characters that really sell his books. They are always realistically diverse without being pandering or tokens. Where he especially shines is in writing women. In Hannah Stander and Ez Choi, Wendig has yet again created outstanding female characters who defy tropes and forge their own destinies. Hannah is at once strong and weak, a woman always looking over her shoulder while pondering the future and riddled with a complicated, self-replicating guilt. Ez is brash and unashamed, as if the word “embarrassment” doesn’t exist in her vocabulary. Not that she has anything to be embarrassed about anyway. She is defiant in her verve for creepy crawlies and isn’t afraid to defend herself. I only wish we’d gotten a little more time with the two of them together. Their early chapters are everything I loved about the new Ghostbusters: full of Bechdel test passing female friendships between intellectual, funny, kind women.
I only have two real complaints, and there ones I have with most Wendig books. First, any character not the main protagonist(s) or antagonist(s) don’t get enough definition or stuff to do. Hollis and Venla, Einar’s bodyguard, are supposedly important characters but may as well not exist for all they do to push the plot forward. Same with the Arca Labs employees who are vital to the action but never become “real” people. Second, the ending felt way too rushed. There’s all this buildup, chapters and chapters of increasing tension and all of a sudden it’s just done. It’s not that the resolution isn’t earned, more like ends too quickly. There’s a bit of denouement tacked on at the end that I’m not sure was really needed, but the plot resolution feels way too abrupt.
It isn’t necessary to read Zer0es in order to understand Invasive, although it certainly doesn’t hurt. You can jump in with Invasive and have no problems, but why would you want to skip reading a great book by an engaging author? Both novels deal with the themes of national security and political corruption. The characters in each defend and denounce to varying degrees how society relinquishes liberty in the face of terrorism and the proliferation of abuses of power in the guise of common good, but where the first book in the series focused its attention on the hackers bent on exposing those issues, the second puts the attention on the hacked. Instead of writing computer code to shatter the balance of power, here the scientists hack the genetic code of ants to create a super species programmed to go after humans. In Zer0es technology befouls nature and in Invasive nature gets its monstrous revenge.
There’s this notion that you can always tell what kind of issues are on a society’s mind by what kind of SFF stories they tell. In the 1980s there was the ever present fear of the “other,” whether they be from outer space or the USSR. Technological advancements were changing the world and lead to the rise of cyberpunk. By the 1990s distrust of the powers that be runs through the country, and the rise of personal computers and the internet bring about a crush of entertainment revolving around technology or nature gone awry, often spearheaded or made worse by a government agency or malevolent corporation. The last decade saw us fretting that our scientific achievements were really attempts at playing God and what might be the consequences of that hubris, which lead to movies, books, and television shows about genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and tech-enhanced humans.
The economic crash, years of endless war, and cultural infighting has us longing for escapism, and Hollywood has obliged by providing us superheroes willing to carry our crosses for us, all while wearing a handsome smile and a dashing onesie, TV is getting sillier and bloodier, and books have latched onto sexy monsters and otherworldly adventures. But throughout all that fun is an undercurrent of suspicion, distrust, and denial. It’s from those threads that Invasive weaves its tale. We want a world filled with altruistic billionaire saviors who defeat sinister government entities but what we have is a bunch of selfish richie riches and middle management bureaucrats who ask a lot of questions. I’ve noticed a lot of new science fiction in recent years where ordinary people, abandoned by their government, military, and scientists, must take on extraordinary forces in order to save the world from its own mistakes. Hannah is no caped crusader. She doesn’t smash her way into Arca Labs and punch people until she gets her way. She pokes, prods, and queries but in the end must rely on her wits and survival skills just like the rest of us.
For a very long time I hated ants. I really frakking hated ants. Twice I was covered in them as a child and even as an adult I have emptied a whole can of bug spray over a few scouts that wandered into my kitchen. It wasn’t until a few years ago that my loathing of spiders overtook my distaste for ants (you try waking up nearly every night to spiders dangling over you because your bedroom shares a wall with the horrifying spider hatchery hellscape that is my garage). Reading Invasive was forced behavior modification, what with me constantly having to tell myself the itching is just formication, there are no ants, it’s just fiction, keep reading. That ant-covered cover and detailing on every page certainly didn’t help calm my psyche. Good thing, then, that the book is so good I could hardly put it down.
Invasive is available now from Harper Voyager.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.