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Issue #128 - April 2006

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Day of the Dead

By Cheryl Morgan

People writing book reviews today all grew up in the 20th Century. When I was a kid the 21st Century was a far-off future inhabited by the characters from Gerry Anderson TV shows. And yet now here we are. In some ways the lives we lead are very science-fictional compared to what we knew back then. But people are still writing science fiction, and I occasionally see reviewers using the phrase, "21st Century science fiction". What does it mean?

Well, who knows? But let us, for the moment, play the Movements game and try to think how SF written now might be different from what was written then. Hereís a very simple classification.

19th Century SF was centered on Europe and came out of the old empires that collapsed after World War I. Classic writers were Verne and Wells, and the prevailing technology was mechanical.

20th Century SF was centered on the US and began with the idea of space as an extension of the Frontier (Heinlein). From there it evolved into the Galactic Pax Americana of Star Trek, and finally to a future ruled by sinister American corporations (cyberpunk). The prevailing technology was electronic and, latterly, digital.

21st Century SF, in contrast, will concentrate on the future after the fall of the American economic empire. It will often be set in former Communist countries, and in countries now regarded as "Third World" such as India and Brazil. The prevailing technology will be biological. Early examples of the sub-genre might be M. John Harrisonís Signs of Life, Geoff Rymanís Air, and Ian McDonaldís River of Gods (not to mention the eagerly awaited Brasyl).

Where does all this lead us? Why, to a book review of course. Indeed, to a review of a book that fits squarely in the definition above. The Patron Saint of Plagues by Barth Anderson is set in a resurgent Mexico, led by President for Life, Emil Obregón. The Mexicans have their own Pope, have renamed their capital Ascensión in recognition of their rise to the status of a world power, and they are busily reconquering Tejas.

The US federal government pretty much collapsed along with their economy, but some still cleave to the old ways. David Henry Stark is a crack virus hunter with the Center for Disease Control. Whenever a dangerous plague breaks out, Stark and his fellow experts jet in to isolate the virus and devise countermeasures. Of course Stark doesnít expect to be called in to combat an outbreak of dengue fever in Ascensión. It doesnít sound serious enough, and in any case he is American and therefore technically at war with Mexico. Then he gets a mysterious email supposedly from a Mexican doctor who claims that the plague is not dengue at all, and that the true nature of the outbreak is being covered up. Not long after, the official invitation from the Mexican government arrives.

The city of Ascensión was ungodly, unnatural. It was unnatural in Montezumaís day, with so many living on Lake Texcoco that the Aztecs began filling it in to make more room for their growing numbers. And now. Now natural diseases could do nothing ó dengue, smallpox cholera ó all too weak to leap past the walls of human defense even in such a large, vulnerable city. Pollution and violent crime were ineffectual. War. Nothing could stop this city from growing in its unnatural numbers, expanding at a rate of adding another city every year into this poor little valley. Earthquakes. Volcanoes. Mudslides. Nothing stemmed the human infection here.

Because of the war, Mexico cannot enlist Starkís aid openly. And because of the war it is not easy for him to get there. Consequently a certain amount of techno-thriller rushing around and waving of guns is required. But the seriousness of Obregónís summons is borne out by the agent that he sends to ensure that Stark gets to Mexico.

Her ratty black hair was pushed back from her brow, revealing a hairline that had been shaved back several inches from her face. Unnatural wrinkles distorted her exposed scalp and temples, as if thick twine coiled just below the skin. She looked briefly at Stark, then away, and Stark realized who, what, she was. Her eyes shone in the dark but the gleam wasnít happiness. It was an augmented optic nerve and silicon lens, which turned that organ into another brain, or rather, a computer. Or so Joaquin had once told Stark. She was a sabihonda as the Mexicans called them. A cyborg.

Of course while Obregón might have been very serious about wanting Stark in Mexico, thereís no guarantee that he wanted him there to cure the plague. If the virus did turn out to be artificially created, and its virulence and specificity certainly suggested that, then who better to be able to blame it on than a famous American virus expert?

And then there is another issue. Mexico is a deeply Catholic country. Nothing happens there without it having religious significance. And one major mystery to be solved is how Sister Domenica, a radical nun, was able to predict the arrival of the plague and warn Mexicoís poor against it. Not that that necessarily did much good. Those poor people tended to react to the plague in much the same way as other poor Catholics reacted to the Black Death hundreds of years ago.

In susurrant, sliding steps, nearly fifty flagellants in black-leather masks entered the wide zócalo. Haunting in their masks, with zippers up the front of their blank, black faces, they raised their elbows high to deliver blows upon their own backs, sweaty chests thrust forward. A man in a tattered priestís cowl of Holy Renaissance red and black stepped to the front of the procession, holding a cross like a torch. Vampirically pale and wild-eyed, he stood among the snapping whips and pointed into the smoking cathedral, screaming a mad mix of Spanish and Latin. "Virus y veneno! Virus y veneno!"

There are several aspects of The Patron Saint of Plagues that are very impressive. To begin with Anderson clearly knows enough about how viruses and immune systems work to sound extremely authoritative. Doubtless readers with medical degrees will be able to point out where he has taken short-cuts or simplified explanations, but for most of us the science will look very impressive.

In addition Anderson has a clear affection for Mexico. Books like River of Gods and Air, while seriously researched, are clearly not books by people who live in India or Mongolia. The Patron Saint of Plagues, on the other hand, reads like a book by someone who knows Mexico and its people well. Having a smattering of Spanish will help in reading the book as Anderson has no qualms about letting his characters speak in their native language from time to time.

Add to that a well-constructed, politically aware techno-thriller with an intriguing plot and you have a book that should do very well indeed. The Patron Saint of Plagues is Andersonís first novel, and there are some rough edges to the prose that Iím sure will fall away as he writes further books. Also I was wholly unconvinced by the relationship between Stark and the entertainingly foul-mouthed Pakistani doctor, Isabel Kushub. But Iím sure that when "best first novel" lists get discussed next January this book will be one of the first suggested.

By the way, when you get to read the book you will note that Iíve spelled President Obregónís name as Andersonís manuscript has it, not how it was mis-typed by someone at Bantam. I understand that the Bantam editorial team is considering introducing certain management techniques pioneered by a gentleman called Torquemada. Hopefully subsequent editions will allow for it to be corrected.

The Patron Saint of Plagues - Barth Anderson - Bantam - publisher's proof

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
Designed by Tony Geer
Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee