Plague from Space by Harry Harrison (first published in Italian as "La fine della paura" in Galassia #55, July 1965; published in book form in September 1965; published as a three-part serial in Science Fantasy, December 1965-February 1966; also published as The Jupiter Legacy, 1970; rewritten and expanded as The Jupiter Plague, 1982)
There's nothing like reading about a deadly, science fictional pandemic while you are recovering from Covid.
The 1970 paperback edition proclaims the book to be "as great a spellbinder as The Andromeda Strain!!", presumably because Michael Crichton's techno-thriller from the year before was an instant best-seller. By 1970 most people had heard of Michael Crichton, far fewer (save those in the science fiction ghetto) had heard of Harrison. A shame, because Plague from Space is more of a spellbinder than Andromeda. Crichton's book -- while good -- is basically drab and lifeless; Harrison's pulls out the all the stops of a good. old-fashioned SF adventure, an implausible roller coaster ride featuring a truly alien menace. Harrison speaks loudly to my fanboy roots. I make no excuses for that.
The time is the near-ish future. Sam Bertolli is a young intern assigned to the emergency department of Bellevue to respond to accident scenes. One tool that Sam has is his "telltale," a device that gives instant medical readouts. Sam and his driver, Killer Dominguez, are told to respond to an emergency at Kennedy Airport; accompanying them is Dr. Nita Mendel, a pathologist who had been "pulled" from the hospital's seventh floor -- a certain indication that something big was going on. And it was something big. A large object had been detected approaching Earth and was identified as the "Pericles," a long-lost ship that had been designed years before to penetrate the surface of Jupiter. Oblivious to attempts at radio contact, the ship made a veticle descent at Kennedy, causing a "certain amount" of damage and possible loss of life.
As they arrive at the scene, the airlock to the Pericles opens and a figure slowly begins a descent, then falls to the ground. The man was covered with swollen, walnut-sized, ozzing and ruptured nodules. Sam and Nita stop anyone else from approaching, placing the man in immediate quarantine. The man, obviously dying, etches the words SICK IN SHIP on the ground. Sam leaves Nita to care for the man as he investigates the ship. The dying man had locked entrance to the ship and a brief scan of the ships cameras from the airlock reveal the ship to be empty with no explanation of what has happened.
The dying man is rushed to Bellevue and placed in isolation, as are Sam and Nita. The man turns out to be Rand, the Second Officer of the Pericles. He soon dies. Horribly. Faced with an unknown contagion, officials scour the outside of the ship and the surrounding area with flamethrowers. Luckily, the strange plague seems to not spread through human contact: Sam and Nita remain healthy.
Then the birds start dying, as do people who touch the birds. The plague, whatever it is, was released through the airlock in a straight verticle path, infecting any birds that got in the way. The birds infected not only other birds and the ground where they fell, but were also transmitting the disease to humans. Humans could not transfer the disease to other humans, but the birds could. The death count grows as the birds spread further and further from the impact site.
Emergency measures are declared and all brids within a large area are ordered killed, something that does not sit well with bird lovers and poultry-raisers alike. People begin to panic. Civilization begins to erode. Violence increases as people try to escape the contagion. Nothing appears to stop the plague. Every person who becomes infects dies. Then the birds pass the plague on to dogs. Dogs infect humans and these humans are now able to infect others.
The World Council comes up with a desperate plan to raze and destory a wide swath of Americas East Coast, including new York, Philadelphia, and Washington. And, if that does not stop the plague, plans are placed to destroy the area with nuclear bombs.
Convince the only hope is to get inside the locked and sealed Pericles in an attempt to unveil the secrets of the plague, Sam hatches a desperate plan.
The truth, it turns out, is far stranger than any had ever imagined.
In good pulp fashion, the pace never lets up, the odds seem impossible, and the gosh-wow factor is high. Harrison has always been an inventive and satisfying author and does not disappoint here.
Far more entertaining than our current pandemic,