Often truth is scarier than fiction.
Take the new novel “Child Zero” by Portland author Chris Holm. It’s set in a world where antibiotics no longer kill bacteria and control disease.
But it’s not a world created solely from Holm’s imagination. Before Holm became a full-time author – he was written five previous novels – he was a molecular biologist and researcher. He’s been fascinated for years by scientists’ warnings that antibiotic resistance is increasing at an alarming rate – that, at some point, antibiotics may no longer protect us.
So Holm combined what he knows and what they could imagine to write “Child Zero.” The story focuses on a police detective in New York City in the near future, investigating an apparent mass murder. At the same time, diseases like meningitis, cholera and tuberculosis are spreading around the world. Published by Mulholland Books, it will go on sale May 10.
“If antibiotics fail on a wide scale, organ transplants will no longer work, chemotherapy will be curtailed, diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis will become major killers,” said Holm, 44. “A paper cut could become potentially life-threatening.”
Though Holm began the book before the COVID-19 pandemic, “Child Zero” is coming out at a time when people have spent two years learning first-hand that science can’t necessarily stop every infectious disease. As of March 23, the Federal Centers for Disease Control said more than 972,550 deaths from COVID-19 had been reported in the U.S. since the pandemic’s start.
“The things that are scariest to read about are those that are plausible,” said Maine author Julia Spencer-Fleming, a friend of Holm’s who has not yet read the book. “The timing of the book is fortuitous because we’ve all had the experience of the pandemic. We’ve all seen the breakdowns and failures of public medicine. ”
The idea of antibiotics failing to protect people – on a wide scale – is certainly plausible to the many scientists and medical groups that have been talking about it for years, warning that overuse of antibiotics can lead to ineffectiveness.
The World Health Organization, on its website, calls antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today.” The WHO describes antibiotic resistance as a bacteria changing in response to antibiotics and developing in new ways that help protect them from antibiotics. “Antibiotic resistance occurs naturally, but the misuse of antibiotics in humans and animals is accelerating the process,” the WHO says.
“I wanted to set a story in the post-antibiotic era as a call to action, a warning,” Holm said.
Print: A Bookstore in Portland will be hosting a release party for “Child Zero” on May 10 but specific details, including time, have not yet been worked out, Holm said.
ALIENS AND DREAM JOBS
“Child Zero” is set in the world that’s been dealing for several years with an increase in bacterial infections, spreading basically unchecked. As drugs and vaccines fail to control the various outbreaks, health officials at first discount the idea that they could all be related. Against this backdrop, New York City is the site of a bioterror attack.
This is Holm’s first book that draws on his long-time passion for science and work in molecular biology. He said when he left his last full-time science job in 2014 – doing research to help develop animal diagnostic tests at Idexx Laboratories in Westbrook – he wanted to focus on writing and figured he should take a break from science.
His three novels in The Collector series – “Dead Harvest,” “The Wrong Goodbye” and “The Big Reap” – center on a man who made a bargain with the Devil and now collects souls. His two Michael Hendricks books, “The Killing Kind” and “Red Right Hand,” focus on a hitman who kills other hitmen.
But with “Child Zero,” he finally merges writing and science, two passions he’s had now of his life.
Holm grew up in Central Square, a small town north of Syracuse in upstate New York, where his father was a home builder and his mother a nurse. In first grade, when some children are still learning to write their name, Holm wrote his first work of fiction, called “The Alien Death from Outer Space.” Holm says it was “gleefully illustrated” with red crayon, to show all the blood and general destruction. It got him a trip to the principal’s office but did not discourage his eagerness to write.
But he also had a passion for science, and read a lot about it. Around fourth grade, he took an advanced-placement test that showed he was an above-average science student. He also read a lot of science-based and science-fiction novels and was influenced by the works of Michael Crichton and Mainer Stephen King. He continued to write throughout his school years, including some “cheesy science-fiction stories,” they said.
After high school, they went to Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and majored in biology. He was at first interested in environmental biology but “fell in love with infectious disease stuff” and switched his focus to microbiology. He said at that time his “dream job” was to work for the CDC tracking down the sources of epidemic outbreaks.
During college, he met his wife, Katrina Niidas Holm, a writer, editor and book reviewer. (No, she doesn’t review his books.) After graduation, they moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where Holm worked at the University of Virginia’s Department of Internal Medicine. He did research into the pathogen responsible for amoebic dysentery. He was considering getting advanced degrees and maybe teaching at the college level. But at some point he decided that the track was wrong for him.
Niidas Holm is originally from Kingfield, in Maine’s western mountains, and the couple had begun thinking about moving to Maine, Portland in particular, when Holm saw a posting for a research position on the city’s waterfront in 2001. He applied and got the job.
Holm worked at Aquabio Products Sciences (later called MariCal), on research that aided salmon aquaculture and wild salmon recovery. He worked there until 2010 when the company closed, then began working at Idexx in research and development.
But while working in science, he was still yearning to write and began writing novels. He didn’t leave his job at Idexx until he had a deal in place for his fourth book.
Kathleen Pigeon, who worked with Holm at MariCal and Idexx, got Holm’s strengths as a scientist show up in his writing.
Pigeon says Holm talked often about wanting to become a writer, and while working in the lab by day, he started doing research in his spare time on how to write fiction. Seeing Holm reach for and attain his writing dream inspired Pigeon to chase her dream of owning her own business, she said. She is one of the owners of Lucky Pigeon Brewing Co., Maine’s first gluten-free brewery, which opened last year in Biddeford.
“They always had this great attention to detail and the ability to look at a problem and solve it, which is important for a scientist or someone writing a good thriller,” said Pigeon.
Another Maine author with a science background is Tess Gerritsen of Camden, who was a practicing physician before becoming a best-selling novelist.
In a blurb for “Child Zero,” Gerritsen praises its “warp-speed pacing and frightening medical details” and says it offers “a terrifying look at a world gone mad and the possible plagues to come.”