The first installment of Burntcoat by Sarah Hall is now available

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In the last decade we’ve been repeatedly reminded that, when it comes to the spread of disease, our own intolerance to the “wrong” things can greatly magnify our threats. Toxic chemicals, the growing impact of genetically modified crops, genetic modification techniques, personal genome editing, etc.

These technological developments, as well as our widespread ingestion of plants, animals, and microbes may seem very distant from the world of science fiction. In Burntcoat by Sarah Hall, though, the big picture arrives with renewed force.

There’s little science fiction on our radar at CNN Books, but the provocative Burntcoat was a hot sales item on Amazon (where it became the bestselling nonfiction book in three days).

Burntcoat is a trilogy of novels that start with two separate authors but steadily blend into one character, Kate Künzler, an independent bookseller with an inquisitive mind. It turns out that Kate uses to multiple occasions her own lab equipment at the company lab where she and her associate Francis Berman were working. When Francis is demoted, at least temporarily, and Kathryn finds the journals Kate’s been spending time in, she has an innocent, “we think” excitement when she discovers there’s a virus in them that turns human beings into small, naked fungus spores with flecks of blood.

For their first incarnation, the spores, earlier “Hick” versions of the Burntcoat epidemic, are being peddled by Armando Rossi, the eccentric CEO of a potential, $8 billion medical vaccine company. These seeds seem harmless enough, but at the same time they can become lethal, as many characters note. They have been turning human beings into this Frankensteinish fungus, and, with Rossi’s remaining organization on its edge and in a panic over the dead bodies stacking up from previous incarnations, there’s a feverish excitement about what might be a game-changing discovery that could save lives.

Marty Klein gets the last word as Francis takes up the research. “Francis’ passion for the virus was strong but not just,” Marty says. “This research and its possible effect was beneath them both.” But there’s a common desire that, once made, the little needles connected to these ticker-tape-sized “shin” drop of blood start inflating upon contact with the body, moving the real-life bearer towards a likely fate. Meanwhile, Kevin Marsh defends.

As Burntcoat turns from one single point to the next, each book has its own red-herring antagonists, the gossipy bookstore employees Molly and Nate Cutler, a former presidential family physician named Charles Chang, a self-styled “outlaw intellectual,” and even “an alchemist with dangerous ideas” and formerly of a minor cult with similar ideological convictions to the one that apparently bears Hall’s name, met Dr. Martin Bostrom.

To be clear, Burntcoat isn’t a bug-out horror novel. The writers are concerned with the tension between science and ideology, the pressure of status and financial success, and the imperative for science to keep up with the demands of the times.

As the whole novel is a tale of power exercised under a veil of secrecy and glossily depicted white supremacy, it’s “but for” a more exciting genre. Mallika Dutt writes: “[I]f there are vampires, zombies and demons, the clash of the machines with the mundane world is how we’re going to relate to it.”

Sarah Hall is the author of The Time Machine of an Invisible Woman: An Invitation to Solitude, out from iUniverse. She lives in England.


Sarah Hall and Mallika Dutt


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