By Sue Burke
Tor Books — May 2021
ISBN: 9781250317872 — Hardcover — 240 pp.
It is the near future and the United States has continued down a path of current trends: partisanship, inequality, disruptions in services/goods, racism, rising fascism, and choosing megalomaniac reality TV stars for president. Advances in genetic modification technology have also taken off through decades past, leading to successful cloning of extinct species like the wooly mammoth, and a brief period of human embryonic design. The individuals resulting from this technology while it was still legal are now persecuted in American society and politics: second-class ‘dupes’.
But, brimming beneath the suppressive status quo are two phenomena with the potential for social and political upheaval. First, a new coronavirus is spreading in the population, turning deadly, and the US administration seems ill equipped for any effective response. Instead, the Prez advocates magical waving of Old Glory and shouts of patriotic incantation to stop the surge of what he inaccurately dubs the ‘Sino cold’. Second, an extensive network of discontents through the nation are secretively planting the seeds for a Mutiny, a time for the majority to step up and wrest power of the government from the fascist minority who have gamed control of the system.
Amid this (frighteningly familiar) setting are the protagonists of the novel, four characters, and unique perspectives, that harbor unrealized kinship and potential. Three are young women, each written in the third-person: Avril, Berenike, and Irene.
An eager and idealistic college student, Avril seeks to join the Mutiny, but instead finds herself being dismissed as naïve by the contacts she approaches, belittled just as general society would based on her simple existence as a dupe. Not in school, Berenike works a joyless, but reliable, job in car rentals. Her simple life becomes overturned in familial blackmail: revelations about her cloned origins, and threats to advertise her status as a dupe. A college graduate, Irene works in animal conservation on a farm, tending Nimkii, a wooly mammoth relegated to being a tourist attraction in a world that doesn’t know where to put a de-extinct relic.
Contrasting in first-person point-of-view is the final character, Dr. Peng, the scientist responsible for the major genetic engineering technologies for modified humans – the so-called dupes. With their life threatened from the controversies of their research past, Peng lives in disguise, changed from a woman into a man, who now works in relative obscurity processing collected viral samples from around the world for monitoring of threats. Peng discovers odd mutations and characteristics in the coronavirus variants that are spreading, and he soon becomes taken by elements from the government to work alongside other talented individuals for designing another virus to release into the population as a vaccine.
Each of these four connected threads take turns through the novel relating their contributions to the overall elements political and viral/immunological. Burke does a great job with the pacing of the novel, juggling the four perspectives without adding too much confusing or losing reader interest.
Judges in cooking shows often suggest to not make multiple versions of a dish, because invariably one will look weaker and bring down the whole. The same holds true a bit here. Irene’s segments are wonderful, largely due to the sincere and touching love between her and the mammoth Nimkii. Dr. Peng’s segments are also engaging, not to mention essential. These are the biological heart to the novel, full of all the virology and immunology details I appreciate. Avril’s segments also serve importance, a contrast in personality and position from Irene’s. That leaves the version of the dish here that probably wasn’t needed, Berenike.
While Immunity Index has a number of good traits going for it, the novel ultimately suffers from some significant problems. Most of these I feel come down to the issue of development or editing/execution. For example, is Berenike really necessary? The pieces that make up Immunity Index are excellent: the themes, the writing, the development of the protagonists, and the plot. However, problems occur in how these are assembled into a whole, and in the absence of visible mortar to force them together.
The title and cover of the novel, and its blurbed synopsis, place a fair amount of emphasis on this as a pandemic novel. While admittedly a significant thread to the plot, the viral aspects ultimately are secondary to the political threads and the Mutiny. In fact, the biological elements here are simply one of the tools as it were of those larger political issues that Burke tackles, more artificial than natural.
With politics being the real core of Immunity Index, the confrontation lies between humans in the Mutiny versus those in power, as opposed to humans versus virus. The mortar the novel lacks is any clear antagonistic face. Burke propels the novel forward by building reader interest in seeing how the different characters connect in their pasts and futures. But there’s really never much doubt to what will inevitably come here. The challenges against the protagonists come from a system, but without any specific character or point of view to show that threat, it never comes across as real or having a chance.
Perhaps, this is a point Burke is trying to make? That the fascist trends of politics in reality have no single face to them, and their defeat could perhaps come from people deciding they’ve had enough, and staging a mutiny. The problem is, there’s no believability here to how this would so simply happen, it’s a stretch to think things would go as easily as they do in Immunity Index to usher in regime collapse. And it makes the whole conflict of the novel lack teeth.
If I recall correctly, Burke began this novel before the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, and it published of course amid the pandemic. I wonder how much of the novel became a more rushed product of such unfortunate timing, changing aspects of the plot and steering the marketing toward what is making present-day news headlines and occupying our minds. I feel like the novel needed more time, and length, to really flesh out and work.
I’ll admit that a large part of my disappointment in Immunity Index also stems from simple high expectations. Sue Burke’s Semiosis and Interference are absolutely outstanding. I’m very happy still to see that a third novel in that series will be coming, and that it was merely delayed due to the pandemic – and a shift to getting this topical novel out? Also, I was really excited and hopeful to see Burke write a novel with microbiological and immunological elements to it.
Even with its deficiencies, Immunity Index is an engaging and compelling novel that readers may enjoy, particularly as political wish fulfillment. And I’d still use it for my Biology in Fiction course. The novel raises plenty of issues in terms of genetic engineering, virology, epidemiology, and vaccination to talk about.