The Big Idea: Scott Sigler

With a title like Pandemic, you know that things are not going to look good for humanity in this book. But author Scott Sigler isn’t wreaking havoc on the world without a plan — oh, no. He’s got a plan, friends. One that he’s been working on for years.


When I was a little kid, my dad took me to see the ’76 version of King Kong. Ever since that afternoon (once I stopped screaming in fear, of course — I was seven; giant gorillas were terrifying), I’ve been hopelessly addicted to horror movies.

According to the movies I love so much, there are a seemingly infinite number of species that want to kill or enslave humans. As in, all of us. Exterminate, exterminate, indeed. This species-wide genocide comes in several flavors, including the invasion, the plague and the horde. Often movies act like Ben & Jerry on bad acid, combining flavors in various, lethal combinations. An invasion/plague? Andromeda Strain. A plague/horde? The Walking Dead. There’s no end to the fun this Easy Bake Oven provides.

When any of these flavors are present, the demise of peoples tends to come in three stages: the Patient Zero Phase, the National Response Phase, and the Global “Oh, Shit” Phase (a.k.a. “the apocalypse”). Yes, I just made these phases up, but clearly they are 100% accurate and scientifically sound. No peer review necessary.

In any given book or movie, we often get to see one of these phases, sometimes two, but rarely all three. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a Patient Zero film, meaning you see the attack from the earliest stages and go through the process of discovery along with the characters — we don’t really see a national response or know if one happens. In a movie like Outbreak, we see that defining factor of the National Response Phase: a Room Full of Important People watching red circles expand across a map of America, showing the spread of the disease. And there are several examples of the Global “Oh, Shit” Phase, where everything goes to hell in a hand basket, a la Night of the Comet, Lifeforce and many more.

My Big Idea? Write a trilogy that shows all three phases, so you are there at the very beginning, you witness the inevitable spread, and you bleed along with the characters for the final swan song.

I began this quest in 2008 with my novel Infected, which had its very own Big Idea. When a movie’s showing us the Patient Zero Phase, we often see a body count of the faceless masses lost in the “first wave.” Infected does something different: it tells the story of just one of those victims, Perry Dawsey, letting you experience his horror and confusion as an intelligent pathogen colonizes his body and his mind. He doesn’t know what’s happening because no one knows: the world has never seen anything like this. And those books and movies where the small team of victims barely stops the disease from escaping? Infected isn’t one of those — by the time Perry’s story closes, the vector has gone wild.

In the second book, Contagious, the camera rolls back and we see how this pathogen impacts all of America. We see the President try to process an impossible situation, the CDC working to contain the vector, and — yes — we see the Room Full of Important People watching red circles spread across a map of the US. Contagious ends with a bang, and all involved think the disease is gone for good. But as happens in a cataclysmic trilogy, not so much.

For the final novel, Pandemic, we’re in full-on Oh Shit Phase. We watch the human race fighting a losing battle for survival. This disease doesn’t just kill, it turns people into killers, creating a slowly shifting balance that steadily teeters towards the point of no return. Characters from both books return and strive to contain a disease that constantly changes, that thinks, that strategizes, always looking for the way to wipe humanity out forever.

Infected was the first novel I wrote. I finished the first draft some twenty years ago. The concept was simple: I would teach myself how to finish a novel by writing a very straightforward story — one man, alone in his apartment, facing the nightmare of his body turning against him. That first draft was very small town, very much indebted to early Stephen King. It only had a handful of characters and was filled with contrivances that kept away the outside involvement of real-world things like cops and doctors.

That small-town feel is where I’m most at home as a writer. Probably because I grew up in a small town, and that limited cast of characters in an isolated setting feels natural. The endless re-writes of Infected, however, forced the story out of Perry’s apartment and into a Tom Clancy arena where I had no experience and a comfort level of zero. I had to start thinking about how the police, the CDC, the FBI, and the government at large would respond. What I’d intended to be a very simple, laser-focused Patient Zero story set entirely in one poor bastard’s apartment — almost a ‘bottle episode’ of a novel — eventually forced me not only to expand my real-world knowledge, but to learn how to incorporate those real-world structures into a compelling narrative. It was challenging, but it was only the beginning.

When Contagious required the move to the National Phase, I faced new questions. Who actually responds to a new plague that turns people into psychotic murderers? How does something like that go up the chain of command? What governmental agencies have jurisdiction, and how do they react? When the shit truly hits the fan and an administration is looking at catastrophic loss of American life, what laws will our leaders break to stop an outbreak before it expands beyond any hope of control?

Pandemic compounded those complications even further. I had to factor in international relations, global transportation’s effects on vector spread, foreign deployment of US forces (along with when they would strike, with what and how hard), and the most disturbing thing of all: the real effects of a nuclear detonation on a modern city.

Now that the series is done, I don’t think I’ll swim in the global pool again. For future projects, all those pages that had to be used explaining real-world laws and organizations can — at least in part — be used for character and relationship. Hopefully, the small town boy can go back to the small town.

If, that is, there are any towns left after Pandemic.


Pandemic: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

32 Comments on “The Big Idea: Scott Sigler”

  1. I preordered, today my long wait is over and I can find out what happens next. Isn’t that one of the pillars of enjoying fiction, wanting to find out what happens next?

  2. I, too, am adding these books to my Must Read list.

    Infected does something different: it tells the story of just one of those victims, Perry Dawsey, letting you experience his horror and confusion as an intelligent pathogen colonizes his body and his mind.

    This sounds a lot like the first 2 chapters of “The Hot Zone,” which Stephen King said was the scariest thing he’d ever read (and the same is true for me). That book was nonfiction; the thought of what a fiction writer could do with the concept…that’s the stuff nightmares are made of.

  3. this helps satisfy my growing addiction to books with mass slaughter and the end of the human race. I have not read your other books, but after reading this I’m going buy the trilogy.

    I would like to see someone write a book and have a zombie outbreak start at Gencon or Comiccon and then have lots of SFWA members go zombie. Would be fun to see Scalzi and John Ringo running around with ak-47s and machetes fighting off zombie science writers, trekkies, and cosplay ladies. See them bond through the slaughter and get past their differences. They can then take on the nickname John Squared.

  4. I’ve been one of Scott’s junkies since he started podcasting his novels for free back when I was in grad school. I’m hoping to pick Pandemic up during my lunchbreak today. My only regret is that I’ll have to miss his book signing near me, since it just doesn’t match up with my kid’s bedtime and such.

  5. I’ve loved this series so far and can’t wait to get my hands on Pandemic! Perry Dawsey was one of my favorite characters ever!

  6. Beej: Ironic you should say Madagascar winds up almost completely untouched.

    Well, he’s right about the game. Having played quite a bit of “Pandemic 2”, most choices seem to come down to “how can I get it to spread slow enough to get to Madagascar before the airports and seaports are closed”. In the game, once the ports close, its damn hard to get it to that island.

    Strange game…. Addictive, but very strange….

  7. Sounds like the book World War Z. The book is literally structured as 5 separate periods in the timeline of the outbreak. “Warnings: the period from patient zero to the first isolated outbreaks. “Blame”: the spread of the virus although not yet recognized as the danger it will be known as later. “The Great Panic”: the first large level outbreaks and the initial massive response attempts and failures. “Turning the Tide”: the conception and implementation of what would be the most effective strategy in stopping the rapid extinction of mankind. “Total War”: having stabilized society, survivors implement a plan of attack to reclaim lost territory and rid the world of the infection once and for all, and “Goodbyes”: a look at post-war society.
    Unless you watched the movie, in which case they kept the title and not much else and pretty much set it all in the Great Panic.

  8. Bought the first book of the Trilogy based on this article. Big Idea + Kindle = impulse buying mania!

  9. I’ll buy the book, Sigler. Like someone said up-thread (Yes, I really am too lazy to scroll up for a name.), I was introduced to you when you were giving away your stuff on…. Mur Lafferty had some good shit there too, as did J C Hutchins.

    But to everyone else, I’d describe Sigler’s writing as honest, brutal, and interesting. This man does not fuck around, and John is making a good decision by choosing to whore out Sigler’s wares.

  10. This guy writes goooood stuff! Page turning, scary, people die in his books who you don’t want to die. If you have any cuts or scrapes, you Will watch them a little more closely after reading the first two books! koff, koff, koff…..oh no

  11. I enjoyed the first two books in the series. I’ll definitely get this when it’s out in paperback. It’s on the Amazon list!

  12. In any given book or movie, we often get to see one of these phases, sometimes two, but rarely all three.

    May I respectfully suggest Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters as one of the few exceptions? The novel includes all three phases and even ends on a somewhat hopeful note.

    The notion of separating the phases into parts of a trilogy is excellent; I’ll have to give this series a try.

    @Guess – another “zombies at the convention” book is Night of the Living Trekkies by Anderson. It is very funny in a bleakly depressing sort of way.

  13. Sigler Fanboy reporting in. I’ve liked a lot of Scott’s stuff, but Infected and Pandemic are at the top of the list. “Pandemic”‘s higher stakes let it avoid the plague of sucky middle-chapter-of-the-trilogy syndrome. Can’t wait to see what happens in the finale, and +1 on the first 2 books for those of you guys looking to pick up the series.

    Other than this series, my favorite Sigler yarn is “Ancestor” – also worth checking out.

  14. This whole trilogy sounds really cool- unfortunately, this Big Idea seems somewhat spoilery! I now know the arc of the entire trilogy, including the ending. :/

  15. Lots of love on this thread and I am honored. @keithrc, I honestly think there’s plenty of surprises in the series. I suggest giving INFECTED a whirl and see how that goes.

  16. Just bought all three for the upcoming JoCo Cruise – nothing says vacation in the sun like fruity drinks and mass death.

  17. I picked up Infected based on this Big Idea and… I’m really disappointed. I’ve made it 75 pages in, but only after I started highlighting and noting every sexist, racist, homophobic comment (made by the narrator, not characters, or there’d be even more). It’s cathartic, sort of, but I’m up to 18 notes that are mostly “wtf seriously” and “why would you say this?”. Not what I expected from someone pitching to Scalzi’s audience — I generally wouldn’t expect rape jokes in my books, but especially not through here.

  18. @Leslie: Sorry that’s your interpretation of the book. Other than the scenes describing the telephone system and the growth of the parasites, there really isn’t a “narrator.” The book is alternating points of view in third-person narrative. In those chapters, you experience the story through that character’s eyes and thoughts (which includes everything you read, not just dialogue).

    The real world is full of people I don’t get along with or agree with, so not all of the characters in my stories are going to be squeaky-clean-perfect in thought and intention.

    If it’s that upsetting to you, put it down and spend your time with something that matches your expectations. Life is short and there are many books.

  19. Wow, seriously? Someone says “Hey, there is a shedload of problematic stuff here, I was not expecting this from a rec on this site” and the response is “Oh poor delicate flower, go read some Jane Austen”? Thanks, but no.

  20. Seemed like a pretty measured response to me. He began with “sorry”, explained his intentions with the characters, and said he understood if somebody preferred not to read.

    I listened to Infected when it first came out as a podcast – it’s been revised since so I may not be familiar with the specific content that bothered her. I can relate though – Stephen King has some nasty people that do nasty things in his books, and as doggy daddy to an abused rescue there was a dog torture scene in It (I think? Might have been The Stand) that really sickened me. Writing about villainous/racist/sexist/disturbing content is not an endorsement of it, though of course I can see how the writing would upset people.

  21. I just found out about this entire series this week as I was looking for a great thriller- something as good as a great book I just finished reading, “Chasing A Miracle” by Eliot Hartford Bailey, which has a little bit of everything – Action, adventure, conspiracy, religion, drama, love, government, travel, sci-fi. After reading your rave review, along with several others I am convinced that this weekend I have to buy Infected, Contagious and Pandemic! They look awesome!

  22. Love the title and cover. Thanks for the great review of Pandemic! I will check this one out. I am also interested in your recommend, Betty. Looks great!

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