By Joshua Alan Parry
Tor Books, 2013 ($7.99)
Reviewed by Sam Waas
Writing about the future is tricky. If the setting is far-future SF, you can cast surroundings such that current events simply do not have sway and an entirely new world is created from whole cloth. If set in the near future, however, you must write with one eye to the present and one on the time frame of the book. And this may be a challenge, especially to first-time novelists.
This difficulty is evident in VIRUS THIRTEEN. The premise is familiar: bioterrorists are spreading a superflu virus from which the populace has no protection, and stopping the pandemic is tasked to the resourceful, brilliant, and heroic protagonists. Such a theme has seen considerable use in recent years, because bioterrorism may engender greater danger in audience estimation than nuclear threats. The challenge to the author is to present a story with ancillary elements such that it does not become a "been there, done that" clone of last month's techno-thriller.
And clone is precisely what Mr. Parry uses to place his novel apart from the herd. VIRUS THIRTEEN is set in the near future (although not specified, I'm guessing two generations hence), in which human cloning is prevalent and human genetic splicing and manipulation is a given. GeneFirm has rapidly become the largest biologically-based corporation in history due to its curing cancer. The cure was effected by performing DNA alterations on fetuses that are removed from the womb for this treatment and then re-implanted for normal gestation. Genetic scientists James Logan and his wife Linda Nguyen are products of this therapy, themselves children of GeneFirm researchers and reared on the corporation's large estate, located near Austin, Texas.
Eliminating cancer, of course, does not create a heaven on earth. Genetically erasing cancer (as well as HIV/AIDS and other diseases) engendered a huge spurt in population, ushering in rampant overcrowding, pollution, and famine. It is because of these negative side effects that the terrorists decide to introduce virulent organisms in a Swiftian solution that will kill off the population excess.
This novel's futuristic society is also quite problematic. It has, for reasons never explained, devolved into a dystopian nanny state. Civil liberties such as due process, freedom from discrimination, and protection against search and seizure have apparently been abrogated. For example, obese, unduly thin, or other "unsuitable" health risks are rounded up by Gestapo-like enforcers from "Homeland Health" and forced willy-nilly into rehab facilities that strangely resemble the hated summer camp in Addams Family 2.
Yet the happy and productive folk sheltered by GeneFirm are untouched by the ominous and near-fascist society around them, like precursors of Eloi among the Morlock. One objection I have to the novel is how easily this harsh, state-controlled society is accepted by the GeneFirm employees with no consideration as to its trampling of civil liberties. They're "above" such concerns, or at least that's how they are portrayed, which is certainly not an admirable trait for a hero. Whether the author intended to convey this detachment as character flaws in his husband and wife team, or simply failed to consider the ramifications of such a controlled society, is not known.
Another aspect of the novel that fails to resonate is the continuation of current cultural icons into the future. A side comment about the Super Bowl and the Chicago Bears' losing seasons falls flat. Wouldn't nearly a century of change create new winners and losers, new icons? (And by the way, "da Bearz" are a pretty good team nowdays.) But our everyday memes are still seen as prevalent throughout. Some elements are anachronistic even by today's standards: "airplane" instead of jet, "stewardess" instead of flight attendant, a young goth girl as promiscuous, an obese man as mentally deficient, the protagonists' children playing dodgeball at school and apparently subjected to 19th century teaching methods.
Scientifically, the book also seems stuck. DNA sequencing is still performed via gel electrophoresis, although you'd think that a faster method would have been devised. And they're still using manual pipettes, items falling to disuse even today. Nanotechnology or robotics might have been employed, perhaps, to put a futuristic spin on lab procedures.
Understand, if the groundwork of this novel weren't a techno-thriller, this wouldn't be an issue. But for a scientifically-based story (even though not SF per se), it's incumbent upon the author to speculate a bit and display aspects of a more advanced culture.
I'm not trying to pick nits here. Despite an excellent story arc and smart pacing, the mostly subjective, smaller elements of this premiere novel weaken the tone and fail to provide the necessary verisimilitude to buoy the basic premise. And understand, it's my task as reviewer to point out a novel's flaws to the prospective reader and not blindly jump on the cover blurb bandwagon.
Nevertheless, VIRUS THIRTEEN is an entertaining, nicely paced story with which I quickly found myself engrossed, even if I was a little disappointed by the supporting mechanics. Mr. Parry is writing from his own worldview as physician and researcher (not yet as a professional author), and has created a clever and engaging story. VIRUS THIRTEEN is a good read, one which I recommend to those who enjoy techno-thrillers. I'm certain that Mr. Parry will grow as a novelist and entertain us even more with his next work.
Return to Over My Dead Body! Online.
Copyright © 2013 Sam Waas. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!