The Immunity Index by Sue Burke (book review).

In an America, not far from the one we know, The Prez is calling for calm. The cold that’s going around is not the deadly Sino virus. Just wave your flag and everything will be fine. Berenike puts out the flags like her boss ordered and counts down the days ‘til revolution. Avril was nearly caught by a counter-protest drone, all-motion sensing knife blades and deadly intent and wants to join the mutiny she is sure is coming. Irene knows what’s coming but can’t leave her re-engineered woolly mammoth to fend for himself and can’t risk being revealed as a clone just in case the revolution fails and she becomes a second class citizen.

None of the three knows the others but all three are clones. Genetically modified embryos bought from a catalogue before it was illegal and brought up in very different households. Created by Peng, self-proclaimed artist of life and death through DNA. Forced to hide from their past, Peng has changed name and gender but cannot hide forever. A soldier was waiting with a van. The Prez wants a vaccine.

Don’t worry. There’s nothing to worry about.

Timing is a lot in publishing. This was clearly written in the far off days before 2020 and maybe even as early as 2017 when Donald Trump was elected president of the USA. Twists on what might be would have seemed bigger and more dramatic. Slightly scary, because these things happen, but not really. Then we had 2020 and it’s just too close to now. The predictions of the near future are too close to what has and is happening. If the focus was solely on a plague and survival amid the aftermath I could have gotten more behind this novel. Conspiracy theories are so loud about covid-19 and it’s vaccines that the ideas presented here as fiction aren’t necessarily as fictional as they might have been.

While the writing is great and the characters well-drawn I have enough doom in my scrolling to add to it.

‘The Immunity Index’ possibly wanted to be a near future lens on current American society but a once in a generation plague has left this novel even more stark in its social and political commentary than it might otherwise have been. There are many other books that have society ending plagues. For a depressing good time try ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St. John Mandel or ‘Oryx And ‘Crake’ by Margaret Atwood.

What Mantel and Atwood do differently is shift things away from the specific now. Mantel’s plague starts in our now but is more about survival in the aftermath, years later, and the plague is just one of those horrible things that nature brings out now and again. Atwood’s plague starts in a possible future of our now and skips between that and the aftermath showing how and why it was created and released to kill almost everyone. By shifting the focus from the now any social commentary is less raw. Whether or not it was the Burke’s intent, ‘The Immunity Index’ felt, to me, a little moralising, even as I agree with the ideas behind it. The focus on the now leaves little room for the reader to interpret and come to their own conclusions.

The rest of the world does not exist for this novel except for China being the starting point of the new flu strain. Leading to racism and attacks on those who might appear somewhat Asian in heritage. Just as we are seeing now. That image of China as a place is so abstract that it isn’t more than a monster under the bed while the world is a snow globe that is America. This is not a global pandemic. There is no W.H.O.. There is barely a federal response or a state response.

Burke’s story of disease puts all of its characters, no matter how small their role, alone and against great odds. Individual freedom warring against family, against capitalism, against various flavours of patriotism. In this world that feels almost direct from the current news cycles, we are alone.

This novel is for fans of the ‘Newsflesh’ series Mira Grant (aka Seanan Macguire) with its government conspiracies and society destroying diseases while everyday heroes try to help sort out the mess.

LK Richardson

May 2021

(pub: TOR, 2021. 240 page hardback. Price: $25.99 (UK), $34.99 (CAN), in June, £18.69 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-25031-787-2)

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