IMMUNITY INDEX by Sue Burke

Immunity Index
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.


New Post on SMALL THINGS CONSIDERED: Children’s Books on the Microbiology of Soil

My latest review is up over on the Small Things Considered blog hosted by the American Society of Microbiology. It features two new books in the fabulous Small Friends series published from Scale Free Network, an Australian-based Art-Science Collaborative.

These illustrated tales of soil habitat symbioses entertain while also teaching about microbial ecology. The text is by Ailsa Wild and the vivid illustrations are by Aviva Reed. Following the fictionalized narratives, the books each contain a detailed section on “The Science Behind the Story.” Filled with additional illustrations and photographs, these sections are useful for microbiological education of children and adults alike.

Read the full post here.

Free eBook Debut Offer for Illustrated Microbiology Children’s Book

I wanted to let readers know about this beautifully illustrated children’s book that is having its debut as an eBook today, and is on special FREE download offer for this week! This and a newer volume are in my pile for a future posting on Small Things Considered, but I was able to get the electronic version to preview in the meantime to check out before letting you know about it.

SquidVibrioMoon_free_eBook

The Squid, The Vibrio, and the Moon
By Ailsa Wild and Gregory Crocetti
Illustrated by Aviva Reed
Scale Free Network – 1s January 2014
ISBN 9780992587208 – 36 Pages – eBook

If you don’t know about the bacteria species Vibrio fischeri and its symbiotic relationship with the Hawaiian bobtailed squid, then this is a perfect introduction to the fascinating pair – whether you are a child or not. It is told in two parts, first from the perspective of the bacteria and then the point of view of the squid in a way that explains how the two species are mutually beneficial in their pairing. A science section that follows the story goes into greater detail of the microbiology.

I’ll write up some more on this in the future along with the authors/illustrator’s new book Zobi and the Zooxon coral symbiosis.

For the promotional period this week of 1st – 7th May 2015 follow this link to get your FREE copy of The Squid, the Vibrio, and the Moon, in iBook or GooglePlay format, or (if like me you prefer the physical beast) order a printed copy.

Cheese and Microbes, Edited by Catherine W. Donnelly

My latest post for Small Things Considered, an American Society for Microbiology blog, is up with a review of Cheese and Microbes, an interesting collection that may be of interest to general readers with scientific interests (or those who just simply adore cheese!).6a00d8341c5e1453ef01b7c7551c32970b-800wi

“Well-established centuries prior to discovery of the unseen universe of life, cheese production seems perhaps closer to an art than to a science — look no further than that descriptor artisanal… Now an entire book of cheese-related microbiology reviews awaits the curious with the publication by ASM Press of Cheese and Microbes, edited by Catherine Donnelly… Donnelly opens the collection with a brief historical overview of cheese and the microbes involved in its production and Kindstedt follows this with a chapter covering the general processes of cheese making that covers the basic chemistry of milk and the techniques for each common step of its transformation into cheese including coagulation, maintenance of pH, moisture, and salt levels, control of environmental temperature/humidity, physical manipulation, and ripening/maturation. These opening chapters, together with the final ones, form easily readable bookends of with broad appeal and provide excellent resources for someone curious about the food they eat…”

Read my entire review at Small Things Considered!

CONTENTS:

Chapter 1 : From Pasteur to Probiotics: A Historical Overview of Cheese and Microbes
Chapter 2 : The Basics of Cheesemaking
Chapter 3 : Cheese Classification, Characterization, and Categorization: A Global Perspective
Chapter 4 : Mesophilic and Thermophilic Cultures Used in Traditional Cheesemaking
Chapter 5 : The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Tales of Mold-Ripened Cheese
Chapter 6 : The Microbiology of Traditional Hard and Semihard Cooked Mountain Cheeses
Chapter 7 : The Microfloras and Sensory Profiles of Selected Protected Designation of Origin Italian Cheeses
Chapter 8 : Wooden Tools: Reservoirs of Microbial Biodiversity in Traditional Cheesemaking
Chapter 9 : The Microfloras of Traditional Greek Cheeses
Chapter 10 : Biodiversity of the Surface Microbial Consortia from Limburger, Reblochon, Livarot, Tilsit, and Gubbeen Cheeses
Chapter 11 : Microbiological Quality and Safety Issues in Cheesemaking
Chapter 12 : Towards an Ecosystem Approach to Cheese Microbiology

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats, by Sandra Markle

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery,
by Sandra Markle
Publisher: Millbrook Press
ISBN: 1467714631
48 pages, Hardcover
Published: 1st Sep. 2014
Source: NetGalley

 With bat decorations just around the corner for Halloween, now is a perfect time to check out this wonderful nonfiction science book with any curious young scientists in your life.
The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats is about the recent fungal infections (white-nose syndrome) that has decimated brown bat populations in North America.
As a biologist and bat lover myself, I appreciated the way that Markle told this scientific story of epidemiology in an engaging way that can introduce children to diverse concepts: the wonders of nature, the effects of the microbial world on larger familiar organisms, the process of scientific investigation, the power of curiosity and creativity, and the importance and benefit of research.
Markle relates these rather complex ideas with straightforward language that is ideal for a middle school (or even late elementary) aged child, all in the format of a ‘scientific mystery’: the observation that something is wrong with bats and the steps that were taken to try and discover what was causing the problem. Only then, with dedicated research and understanding can the problem be addressed, a mystery must be solved.
Apparently this book is part of an entire series, so I’ll have to look into the other titles offered. Although I could only look at this on a Kindle, the photos and illustrations are plentiful, bright, and well-done. I should note that given the topic of a deadly disease of bats, there are illustrations that may be considered ‘gross’ or ‘uncomfortable’. I appreciate the honesty that the text and photos show in just how awfully devastating disease can be for any organism and the price that must be paid to try and determine its cause and treat it. I also really appreciated the realistic images of scientists just simply doing their work in the lab, the latest equipment at hand.
This book is really a great opportunity to expose a child to the wonder of nature and the appeal of science. It makes complex, and perhaps even frightening realities accessible to children and may help inspire curiosity or dreams in a future scientific researcher.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes, by Nicholas P. Money

The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes, by Nicholas P. Money
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ASIN: B00I7TR8L0
239 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

The purpose behind Money’s “The Amoeba in the Room” resonates strongly with me as a microbiologist. It should resonate with anyone who is a biologist or is interested by the varied types of life on Earth. The TV documentaries “Life” and “Planet Earth” infuriated me with their focus on animals and plants alone. The vast majority of life on Earth is ‘other’ and microbial. “The Amoeba in the Room” sets out to make this clear and detail what exactly that microbial world looks like.

I personally was interested in reading this because I was expecting a focus on the protists, eukaryotic microbes that I’m not nearly adequately familiar with. The first chapter nicely gives a tour of this eukaryotic microbe world, including the amoeba, but much of the remainder of the book covers the prokaryotes: bacteria and archaea. This isn’t a problem by any means, but for me personally, everything in the remainder of the book was well-known to me and probably will be to any microbiologist.

And that final point does get at the major concern I have with Money’s work, namely who is the audience supposed to be. Parts of the book are written with a fair amount of scientific detail (or at least jargon that goes undefined) that it would be hard reading for someone who is not trained in modern molecular biology at least. Yet the scope covers such a broad range of topics that the information given should be familiar to most scientists. I can see this working best for perhaps a well-trained biologist who happens to be in macrobiology fields. It is unfortunate that the language of the book and its style weren’t written to better serve as a general audience book for microbiology popularization. Instead, “The Amoeba in the Room” seems to exist partially in both worlds of general and technical, not being of prime use to either despite noble purpose and accurate, impassioned writing.

Three Stars out of Five

John Snow, by Jack Challoner

John Snow, by Jack Challoner
Publisher: A&C Black (Bloomsbury)
ISBN: 1408178400
112 pages, paperback
Published March 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This short biography covers the work of doctor John Snow in investigating outbreaks of cholera in England, a key event in the development of the science of epidemiology, tracing an illness back to its source and ultimate cause. Although Snow was no microbiologist, and it fell to Koch to eventually clearly identify the bacteria Vibrio cholera as the causative agent of the disease, Snow’s work laid the foundations for establishing a way to control cholera, namely to focus on water supplies rather than the prevailing view of the time, ‘bad air’.

Challoner, an established writer of communicating science to a lay audience, particularly youth, writes this geared for older children and young adults, but for those unfamiliar with Snow’s work and epidemiology, it would be quick, highly readable primer on the topic. Challoner focuses on the cholera-related work of Snow, rather than writing an all-encompassing birth-to-death biography, though he does discuss tangentially Snow’s role as physician and pioneering anesthesiologist.

Despite focusing on this history of science and medicine, Challoner relates the story with descriptive warmth, including small details of everyday life at the time (mid-late 1800s) and conversationally, anecdotally through the thoughts of Snow and those he comes in contact with in his endeavors. Though fabricated in that retelling, the facts behind the story, the history, remain solidly accurate to my eye.

Beyond introducing Snow’s accomplishments, this book in general outlines the scientific process of mystery, curiosity, research, refinement, and ultimate success, but with more work for others to carry on. In this sense it is a good general introduction of children to science in general.

The only drawback to the book relates to who the audience may actually be. With text alone, it tends towards the dry and detail-laden, including some medical/scientific vocabulary, despite being related in a straight-forward way, more relatable perhaps to an adult. Yet, it is written in a short and succinct manner with phrases interspersed in the detail that seem geared towards the young. It thus seems most appropriate for a teen with a keen interest in science or medicine, or as a fine source for some school project or paper.

Four Stars out of Five