Vivid and carefully researched, it’s clearly the product of long and conscientious work ... It’s one of Shepard’s many appealing qualities as a writer that he notices the significance of what people devote their lives to. He is interested in the minutiae of employment ... Shepard writes persuasively about the disparate places and lives connected by the disaster. The breadth of the book is necessary and commendable ... Shepard shows his gift for making art from the lives of people living in extremis. He does this with a patient, naturalistic eye for detail and a style in which exactitude and plainness bring bracing poetry. He also experiments with a different idiom, a knowing insider’s style that occasionally strikes a jarring note ... What makes the book engaging and ultimately uplifting is the emotionally complex lives of its central characters ... Shepard has managed to make art out of our crisis with a thought-provoking work of fiction that sustains our emotions, and also shames our policymakers.
Shepard’s writing is brainy, hyper-informed. The book’s acknowledgements boast a rough bibliography as long as a short story and offers thanks to a research assistant. But Shepard’s talent for science writing cuts the vast research down to size and draws the blood out of it ... These infusions of informational writing bring the scope and impact of the pandemic into focus ... He’s not just interested in the pathology and epidemiology of a pandemic, but in the way it frays the social order. Shepard deftly shifts tone as he approaches the pandemic’s effects from different angles, becoming more conversational to capture the depth of social chaos ... a touching humanist portrait of those coping with disaster; a biting critique of chronically failing governments and institutions; and a compelling, if horrifying,biological thought experiment. In any other year it would be a brilliant accomplishment on its own. This year in particular, it may serve as our most potent warning to date.
Though Phase Six was almost entirely completed before the current pandemic became a full-fledged disaster, the novel pushes on a number of sharp wounds created by extremely recent history, including the sensation that death lurks everywhere, merciless ... We are mostly locked tightly into the personal experiences of key players but occasionally offered a wide-angle view, usually as a way of twisting the knife. This technique works better in some moments than others. Passing mentions of news coverage and political squabbles feel somewhat toothless and tame. Descriptions of Fox News’ paranoid rumor-mongering re neither surprising nor particularly insightful. But more basic dispatches arrive as painful shocks ... Yet the most powerful moments come at close range ... Shepard toys with thriller conventions by offering full names and backstories, laying down the expectation that they’re in it for the long haul — only to have them fall ill and die pages later. Nobody is safe ... Shepard imbues such passages with procedural intrigue, then often closes them with the discovery that things might be even worse than imagined ... Retroactively added references to the ongoing pandemic land with an ugly thud ... This hiccup, however, does not dim the insight and power of Shepard’s moving portraits of characters who live through, die from or work to stop the pandemic. Phase Six cultivates an agonizing sense of dread — the same sense of dread millions of people have been trying to escape for a year. It’s an impressive work of literature, if you can find a way to bear it.
... is best when it draws us into these three lives reshaped by a mysterious disease ... Shepard is peerless when it comes to the way children experience trauma. The sections that describe Aleq scampering around Ilimanaq and then hermetically sealed in a biosafety lab are harrowing and heartbreaking ... overall, Phase Six is an odd act of genetic manipulation that results in what might be called Apocalypse Minimalism. Beautifully drawn episodes of private anguish are interrupted by quick-cut scenes and potted explanations of the way viruses and bacteria kill. You can spot strains of Michael Crichton in these thoughtful pages like panther paws grafted onto a lab-created sheep. That could satisfy fans of cinematic thrillers and literary fiction, but I suspect the clash of tones and approaches will, instead, disappoint both audiences. There simply isn’t room here to accommodate what this novel wants to do. The thriller elements feel familiar and undercooked; the personal stories are rushed and cramped ... The essential problem, though, may be one of motive. They mean well, of course, but pandemic apocalypses are the most schoolmarmish of all apocalypses. Asteroids, vampires, zombies — these scourges lunge at us from out of nowhere. It’s not our fault! A virus that wipes out humanity, though, could have been avoided if only we’d protected the environment, monitored transboundary animal infections and nurtured global coordination ... Those are great points for a persuasive op-ed, but the nuance of Phase Six sometimes gets rubbed away by such declarations and its cursory re-creation of our recent history. The best apocalyptic fiction doesn’t convince; it inspires.
The worry about the spate of coronavirus literature that is soon to bombard us is that it will be cheap and bathetic, but Phase Six sits at the opposite extreme, so densely researched and unemotional that it might have been written by committee at the CDC ... This is part of Mr. Shepard’s distinctive style, of course. The author is one of the great mimics of contemporary literature, capable of producing convincing, authoritative narratives on anything imaginable, from the Cuban baseball league to Polish Himalayan mountaineering to life in the Warsaw ghetto, to name just some of his past topics. Phase Six again demonstrates his detached, ironized mastery of a complex and highly technical subject. I wouldn’t recommend it to my worst enemy.
... completely believable, totally absorbing, and fast-paced ... Shepard composes in an extremely concise manner, with few wasted words. His writing is cohesive and succinct, which works very well in a sci-fi novel. Shepard has certainly done his homework. The science is realistic, clear, and well-researched ... Shepard pulls no punches...placing the reader in the minds of researchers whose job is to stop a ruthless pandemic ... Whether Jim Shepard is a prophet or just a great writer with a clever concept, we’ll probably never really know. But if you are seeking a fast-paced, gripping story with dangerous consequences and implications in our lives today, this is your book.
... the novel moves between the personal and the scientific in a way that is at once informative, suspenseful and heartfelt—a balance that Shepard manages with remarkable grace, imparting a ridiculous amount of data and historical detail, but mostly believably couching it in the characters' thoughts and often funny and endearing dialogue. The balance, in fact, seems to be the point, as Aleq's plight and Jeannine and Danice's struggles persistently shift our focus from natural science to human nature and back again, reminding us of our precarious place among the world's infinite possibilities.
A tightly-written, well-researched, and suspenseful novel ... The ending of Phase Six offers little hope. About the only encouraging aspect of the story is the implied prediction that we survived COVID-19. Shepard’s fictional world doesn’t seem to be so lucky with its second pandemic. Will we? Phase Six is a very good and worthy book. But, damn, this was one tough read. Buy Shepard’s book. Just wait a while before you read it.
... I picked up Phase Six on a whim and devoured the first 100 pages before I knew what was happening ... In its second half, alas, this one rolls over and expires ... Like a lot of people, I have a sweet tooth for apocalyptic narratives. Shepard efficiently gets his off the ground. Things get dark quickly. He nails the scientific details, but also the cultural ones ... passes the Bechdel test on nearly every page ... Shepard is a crisp and intelligent and reliable writer ... Shepard writes perceptively, in Phase Six, about a lot of things. He’s passionate in his defense of the environment, though it’s hard to find a decent novelist who isn’t. He pays attention to the ways certain cable news channels make every situation worse. He makes scientific realities tactile ... After its creepy and bravura opening, Phase Six stalls. It’s as if, having achieved escape velocity, Shepard turned off his engines. What begins as a brainy potboiler, the kind of book you’d have felt lucky to find in one of those spinning drugstore paperback racks, becomes ponderous ... The world outside is burning and we’re almost entirely stuck inside ... There’s some slack writing, too, which is unusual for Shepard ... aspires to real density, but it can’t quite get there: The characters remain essentially static. The book falls into a no-person’s land between pop thriller and literary novel. It doesn’t satisfy on either level.
Shepard’s novel bears the mark of prodigious research, with dozens of books, articles and interviews listed as source material. But he’s also an accomplished storyteller, and he avoids the common mistake of less talented writers of periodic information dumps that highlight the author’s diligence at the cost of slowing the novel’s narrative momentum ... an impressive cautionary tale, and we can only hope that some of the people whose efforts might make a difference in preventing the next public health catastrophe will take the time to read it.
... incisive, unsettling ... riveting and tragic ... Shepard writes with drilling authority about Greenland, epidemiology, the challenges women doctors and scientists face, and the confounding complexities of the microbial world. With word-by-word artistry, fluid compassion, and deep insights, Shepard emphatically dramatizes epic failures, self-sacrificing dedication, desolation, and love.
Paced like a prophetic thriller ... Shepard's command of tone never lets the tension ease ... And though the novel builds to a sort of redemption, it suggests that there will be no resolution to the current pandemic beyond nervous anticipation toward the ones to come ... All the narrative propulsion of escapist fiction without the escape.
... disappointing ... The author has clearly done some impressive research into infectious diseases, but some readers may have a visceral reaction—not so much because of the heartbreaking similarities to the coronavirus and the millions who have died because of it, but because of the plot’s predictability and the lack of an ending. Shepard has done better.