Book Review: Dahlia Black by Keith Thomas (2019)

August 16th, 2019 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Like World War Z, but with aliens!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for violence and mental health issues, including suicide.)

In 1977, the whole world turned towards the stars. We wanted to believe there was intelligent life somewhere out there. And we hoped that if we could reach them, maybe they’d reach back. Voyager 1, this satellite dish with bristling antenna, was a message in a bottle. Our way of letting the galaxy know we existed. That we were out here if anyone wanted to find us.

Over the next forty years, the probe flew past Jupiter and Saturn before it drifted into the void, swallowed up by a silent universe. Or so we thought . . .

Truth is, our message didn’t go unheard.

The universe reached back and changed everything. Not with war or an invasion but with a whisper. Almost overnight, all that we knew transformed.

And I saw it happen.

I am not an incubator, but my head has become an executable.

On October 17, 2023, a rouge astronomer named Dahlia Mitchell unwittingly picks up a signal originating from farthest reaches of space. Rather than the sound of a dying star or an errant transmission from the breakroom microwave, Dahlia and her colleagues quickly realize that this signal is intentional, complex, and was most likely purposefully directed at earth by the members of an intelligent species. The signal is dubbed the “Pulse Code,” owing to its similarity to a computer code as opposed to, say, an attempt at communication or contact.

Before the president and her cabinet can formulate an action plan, the Pulse begins working its nerdy magic. Once received, the Pulse got right down to business, altering the brains of roughly 30% of the earth’s population. Initially, those affected experienced visual and auditory hallucinations. They saw, heard, felt, and tasted things others couldn’t, from electromagnetic radiation and ultraviolet colors, to the ultrasonic songs of mice and insects, and gravitational waves. One woman was able to taste things with her fingers, like a fly. Many claimed to be able to see ghosts.

Before long the Elevated, as they would be known, manifested enhanced cognitive abilities; they could “calculate new forms of mathematics, develop innovative computer algorithms, uncover unseen biological processes, and create unimaginable works of art.”

In the end, they simply vanished – pulled, perhaps, into that other dimension they saw, overlaid on top of our own. Yet many – as much as 15% of the infected, by some accounts – succumbed to the changes prior to the Finality, their bodies too weak to withstand the demands placed on them.

In a scant five years, the global population dropped from 7.7 billion to 2.5 billion. In addition to the 3 billion people killed or disappeared by the Ascendant – aka our alien overlords – billions more were murdered in the resulting violence and chaos.

Now it’s five years on, and a reporter named Keith Thomas is trying to make sense of the Pulse Code. Disclosure: How One Woman’s Discovery Led to the Greatest Event in Human History is the result. Thomas weaves together original interviews with historical documents, police transcripts, diary entries, and illicit files in order to deconstruct the Pulse and its aftermath.

So this is a really fun read, and comparisons to World War Z are spot on. I enjoy the change of pace that faux nonfiction books constructed of various files offer, and Dahlia Black is no exception. It’s kind of like World War Z in this way, but with aliens! Or like Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files trilogy, but with a whimper instead of a bang. (The latter has giant weaponized alien robots, so there’s that.)

I had a lot of, um, fun following Thomas on this ride, as he imagines what a world suddenly devoid of more than half its population might look like. (“Fun” in scare quotes because many of the events outlined here are downright horrifying, particularly because they have happened in the past and will no doubt replicate themselves in the future.) Just take the reference to deepfakes – which I just learned about on an episode of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee a few short months ago – used four years from now to foment mob violence against the Elevated.

There’s also a great conspiracy theory subplot that adds another layer of intrigue and general gruesomeness to the story. (Yes, I’m talking about the girl with two spinal columns.)

Dahlia Black is a great summer read that would also make a great summer blockbuster. Just don’t do it like Brad Pitt’s World War Z, okay. That shit was disappointing.

P.S. I also await the comic book adaptation.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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