The Cambridge Geek

The Zeno Effect - Andrew Tudor

As part of the approach to developing vaccines, people investigate viruses. Indeed in a few, very secure, labs hideously dangerous viruses are kept alive in order to study them. Examples include smallpox, various plagues, hantavirus and so on. But what if the rest of the world is also playing around with these? Wouldn't it be better to have a virus that changed itself, so you could always be aware of what monstrosities could occur?

Enter the Zeno Effect.

This is a form of genetic tinkering that results in viruses that undergo rapid mutations, far quicker than normal, in order to prevent vaccines from ever being able to keep up with them. How is this supposed to help stop people dying from viruses? Literally no one knows. Still, must be a fun experiment to be involved with.

Unfortunately, it's not fun enough that one of the scientists doing this research doesn't want to kill off most of the human race in order to prevent an overpopulation problem he's seen coming. He's presumably a member of the more militant offshoot of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.

Easy enough then, for him to wander out of Porton Down with a vial full of something horrible and infect the world. And so begins the deaths.

The world is thrown into turmoil pretty damn quickly, and a small band of scientists, journalists, intelligence specialists and people with more traditional skills have to get together to do their best to weather the storm. This will include running from the inevitable mobs, trying to form new communities that don't fall into religious mania or feudalism, and updating their website.

What follows is an updated form of the "Cosy Catastrophe" genre, as indicated by the recognition of the importance of that book in the afterword. It also has parallels to Survivors, and I think I detected a hint of The Death of Grass.

However, it's also heavily influenced by the politics of today. Looking back through books I've read in the past few years, it's possible to see the trends. We had zombies again for a while, and there's been a resurgence of the superhero genre, which I think it mostly due to Marvel, but there's also been a few recurring themes in dystopias. We've had political drama, based on the increasingly partisan status of the US under Donald Trump and it's creeping control of women's rights. There's naturally the ever present overarching threat of climate change and the influence it has on population dynamics.

But the other theme, perhaps unsurprisingly, is walls and borders. Whether we use them to keep things in, or keep them out, they're very much in the public consciousness. One of the major plot points of this book is that in the near future, IndyRef2 was finally successful following a ruinous Brexit and an authoritarian "English" government, and there's no small disagreement with the Auld Enemy.

It's a studious book, which is both a strength and a weakness. The author has a academic background in sociology, and there's a lot of exploration of the ideas of society and how it might fall apart. That also includes some serious consideration to the alternative approaches to working together that might develop after the end of the world. It's not afraid to dig deep into human nature.

At the same time, that means the book can come off a bit sterile. There are a few sneaky elements involving the various countries' spycraft, but the muckier aspects of the destruction tend to be skimmed over. Still, it's compelling enough that I bashed through it speedily, helped along by the central characters, who have a fair bit to survive while maintaining a semblance of morality. Good for thinks, less for thrills.

Score 4

Tagged: Book Science fiction Horrible humans Novel Print