Truth is often scarier than fiction.
Take Portland author Chris Holm’s new novel “Child Zero.” It takes place 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’s already written five novels — he was a molecular biologist and researcher. He has been fascinated for years by warnings from scientists that antibiotic resistance is growing at an alarming rate – that at some point antibiotics may no longer protect us.
So Holm combined what he knew and what he could imagine to write “Child Zero.” The story centers on a police detective in New York City in the near future, investigating an apparent mass murder. At the same time, diseases such as meningitis, cholera and tuberculosis are spreading around the world. Published by Mulholland Books, it goes on sale May 10.
“If antibiotics fail on a large scale, organ transplants won’t work, chemotherapy will be reduced, diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis will become major killers,” said Holm, 44. “A paper cut could become life-threatening.”
Although Holm started the book before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, “Child Zero” comes out at a time when people have spent two years learning firsthand that science can’t necessarily stop all infectious diseases. As of March 23, the federal Centers for Disease Control said more than 972,550 COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the United States since the pandemic began.
“The scariest things to read are the ones that are plausible,” said Maine author Julia Spencer-Fleming, a friend of Holm’s who has yet to read the book. “The timing of the book is fortuitous as we have all had the experience of the pandemic. We have all seen the breakdowns and failures of public medicine.
The idea that antibiotics fail to protect people – on a large 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 greatest threats to global health, food security and development today.” The WHO describes antibiotic resistance as bacteria that change in response to antibiotics and grow in new ways that help protect them from antibiotics. “Antibiotic resistance occurs naturally, but overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals accelerates the process,” says the WHO.
“I wanted to put a story in the post-antibiotic era as a call to action, a warning,” Holm said.
Print: A bookstore in Portland will host a launch party for “Child Zero” on May 10, but specific details, including timing, have yet to be set, Holm said.
ALIENS AND DREAM JOBS
“Child Zero” is set in a world that for several years has faced an increase in bacterial infections, spreading virtually unchecked. As drugs and vaccines fail to control the various outbreaks, health officials initially dismissed the idea that they could all be linked. In this context, New York City is the site of a bioterrorist attack.
This is Holm’s first book that builds on his lifelong passion for science and work in molecular biology. He said when he quit 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 that 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 deal with the devil and is now collecting souls. His two books by Michael Hendricks, “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 for most of his life.
Holm grew up in Central Square, a small town north of Syracuse, New York, where her father was a home builder and her mother a nurse. In first grade, when some children were still learning to write their names, Holm wrote his first work of fiction, titled “The Alien Death from Outer Space”. Holm says it has been “joyfully illustrated” in red crayon, to show all the blood and general destruction. It won him a trip to the principal’s office but did not deter his eagerness to write.
But he also had a passion for science and read a lot about it. Around the fourth year, he took an advanced level test which showed him to be an above average science student. He also read many science fiction 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 “cheesy sci-fi stories”, he said.
After high school, he went to Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and majored in biology. He was initially interested in environmental biology, but “fell in love with infectious diseases” and turned to microbiology. He said that at the time, his “dream job” was working for the CDC looking for the sources of outbreaks.
At university he met his wife, Katrina Niidas Holm, a writer, editor and book reviewer. (No, she doesn’t review her books.) After graduation, they moved to Charlottesville, Va., where Holm worked in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Virginia. He researched the pathogen responsible for amoebic dysentery. He planned to pursue higher degrees and possibly teach at the college level. But at some point he decided that this track was not for him.
Niidas Holm is from Kingfield in the mountains of western Maine, and the couple had begun thinking about moving to Maine, Portland specifically, when Holm saw a research station on the beachfront of the city in 2001. He applied and got the job.
Holm worked at Aquabio Products Sciences (later called MariCal), on research that helped salmon aquaculture and the recovery of wild salmon. He worked there until 2010, when the company closed, then began working at Idexx in research and development.
But while working in science, he always wanted to write and started writing novels. He didn’t quit his job at Idexx until he had a deal for his fourth book.
Kathleen Pigeon, who worked with Holm at MariCal and Idexx, said Holm’s strengths as a scientist show up in her writing.
Pigeon says Holm often talked about wanting to be a writer, and while working in the lab by day, he began researching in his spare time how to write fiction. Seeing Holm reach out and achieve her writing dream inspired Pigeon to pursue 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.
“He always had this great attention to detail and his ability to look at a problem and solve it, which is important for a scientist or someone who writes a good thriller,” Pigeon said.
Another Maine author with a scientific 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 “high-speed pacing and chilling medical details” and says it offers “a terrifying look at a world gone mad and the possible plagues to come.”