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review: the patron saint of plagues

I was a fan of barthanderson's fiction before I met him, and am even more a fan now that I know the man personally and have published his writing myself. My being a friend of Anderson's typically does not effect how I approach his work, nor my objective evaluation thereof. But I do need to give that caveat up front.

The Patron Saint of Plagues is Anderson's first novel, and it's a cracker. A futuristic fast-paced medical thriller that tackles virus outbreaks, agricultural devastation, interactive wetware, and border wars between the economically-crippled United States and thriving Mexico.

It's fifty-five years in the future, and the US economy is in shambles, plunging the nation into third-world status. Because monoculture farming by big agri-business leaves many crops vulnerable to blights, US agriculture is devastated when exactly that happens. Henry David Stark works on his grandfather's democratically-organized co-op in Wisconsin, taking a break from his career in epidemiology at the Centers for Disease Control to help his grandfather maintain his local organic farm. But Stark is soon called back to service as a colleague in Mexico contacts him about a new virus spreading in Ascensión, what used to be called Mexico City.

For in this speculation, Mexico has become a powerful country. The genetic diversity of that country's crop plantings (for example, they have hundreds of varieties of corn, where the US only has four) helped to offset the blights from the US. They also invented the pilone network, a wetware system that connects all its users at once, kind of like having the internet in your brain, and it is a system that physiologically only works with the genome from a certain Mexican ancestry. Mexico has also militarily taken back New Mexico and Arizona, and has its sights set on Texas as well.

And so, because of these political tensions, it is unusual for Stark to receive such a communiqué. Normally, the Mexican medical authorities would handle such a problem as a mutated dengue fever sweeping through Ascensión, but this type is particularly virulent and incredibly deadly. As Stark tries to sneak over the border, the numbers of the dead mount into the hundreds, and soon, into the thousands. Stark must use all his skills and the cooperation of his colleagues, as well as the cybernetic sabihonda Rosangelica, in order to contain the outbreak and discover its source. All this while battling the corrupt Mexican authorities of the Holy Renaissance, listening to the prophecies of activist nun Sister Domenica, and suffering through the continued presence of Patient Zero, who continues to infect and undermine all of Stark's efforts.

Considering that this is Anderson's first novel, The Patron Saint of Plagues is a remarkable achievement. It is told in confident and assured prose that evokes an entire culture that can trace its roots back to the Aztec and Incan empires. I could almost believe that Anderson had been born and raised in Mexico, because his details of the setting and its people are so well-painted in his words. The pilone net may not be the first instance of such technology (as versions of it can be seen in the Borg collective from Star Trek, and the users of Whuffie in Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, to give just two examples), but its application here is unique; not everyone can get access to this technology, because of genomic differences that limit its use to a Mexican demographic.

Anderson also gets into issues of class, as the richest inhabitants in Ascensión live in the high-elevation areas of La Alta, and the poor underclass, which Sister Domenica fights for, still live in the lowest polluted levels and suffer the brunt of the dengue outbreak. There is also the reversal of economic fortune in the situations of the United States and Mexico.

But above all, the novel is an incredible thriller, pulling the reader through the pages with rapid intensity. I was very aware of the rising body count as I progressed through the narrative, and the dwindling timeline of being able to control the plague before it spreads to the rest of the world. All of the obstacles that Stark must overcome before he can even enter Mexico, and the ones he must deal with once he gets there, serve to heighten this tension and suspense. You want him to be able to get there in time, to save the people of Ascensión, to do his job and find a cure, but just as in real life, it's not quite that easy.

There was one thing that bugged me, however. Most of the story takes place in Mexico, and Spanish is presented as the default language, but when Stark speaks English, it's done in a Mississipi River patois that omits the verb "to be." His grandfather thinks it's hick-talk, and the first couple times I saw it, I thought it was a typo. He seems to speak in the constructed language of E-Prime, though I could never figure out why. It appears to be a conscious choice, since many other people use "to be" around him, so it's not as if the verb is obsolete. Plus, he uses it when speaking in Spanish and in the other languages he uses throughout the novel. So . . . why?

I posed this question to Anderson through email, and this was his response (reprinted with permission):
"The patois wasn't intended to be a tick of Stark's but a linguistic trait of his region and generation. While I'm afraid the patois was probably more evident in the previous draft, when Stark had more interactions with Wisconsin housemates before leaving for Houston, Earl does speak it in Chapter One (and shifts out of it in his parting shot at Stark up the stairwell).

"I wanted the patois there for several reasons. First, I wanted to show that America had dramatically changed from Grandfather's generation (yours and mine) to Stark's, and I wanted there to be a sense of class shift about it ("hick"). I also wanted there to be a noted difference between Stark's English and his Spanish, so that it was very clear when he was speaking "in translation," as it were. Lastly, the lack of to-be verbs renders rural America almost existentially non-existent. Abstractly, Stark's America doesn't exist: It does not be.

"Whether it works or not, the patois definitely fits the larger theme of communicating, as you say. The virus communicates easily. Hardly any of the principals do--indeed, even the main character doesn't communicate easily with the reader. I wanted the reader to feel a sense of displacement, disjointment where Stark and this America were concerned, while keeping the readerly flow in Mexico smooth and easy, so that modern Americans would feel a sense of comfort there."
So do yourself a favor and pick up this novel. You'll learn more about virology and Mexican culture than you might have thought possible in a science fiction novel. You'll certainly never think the same way about the human immune system again. It's a fun and fast read, the perfect summer book.

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