The year is 2145. The world is ravaged by an illness called the tiger flu. Quarantine rings surround Saltwater City. HöST, a corporation led by the inventor Isabelle Chow, controls the city and the first quarantine ring, where young Kora Ko lives with her mother, uncle, brother, and goat. Meanwhile, in the fourth quarantine ring, Kirilow Groundsel cares for her love, Peristrophe Halliana, both of them sister clones in Grist Village. Soon, the fragile equilibrium of both Kora and Kirilow’s lives will be broken, and they will be swept up, unwilling and unknowing, into a battle between Isabelle and other powerful figures who fight for control of the satellites overhead.
Or something like that. Some of the events are unclear in The Tiger Flu, Larissa Lai’s third novel, especially those that involve Isabelle Chow and her adversaries. The novel focuses on Kirilow and Kora, for whom the powerful of the city are nearly as distant as gods. (Kora even frequents a shrine devoted to Isabelle.) The narration sticks closely to what these two teenagers know of the world, with context for the struggles around them dropped in via hints and quick-moving references. A reader interested in that larger context must either track and piece together those hints, or give in to the stream of events and let the context sweep over them without full understanding. I struggled with both of those options myself, and ended up dissatisfied with The Tiger Flu. For the right reader, though, the novel offers a powerful story of knowledge, memory, community, and survival.
Lai’s decision to break up the context into disparate references echoes the experience of her characters. The Tiger Flu introduces the reader to a future of fragmented knowledge. The novel opens with Kora Ko looking up into the sky at Chang, a satellite bearing a mainframe. She knows that Chang carries information, but “only the citizens of the glass towers in Saltwater City can tap in” (p. 12). In the first quarantine ring, far from those glass towers, Kora gets information through a halo, a device that connects directly to the wearer’s brain. Information is distributed on memory scales, which plug into halos. Information is precious. Kora has a halo and memory scales to help her survive. Her Uncle Wai voices the argument for the halo: “She needs memory scales to understand the world that was. They don’t hurt her. She’s gifted is all. And her gift will help her live” (p. 29). In this future, Kora and her Uncle Wai are turned toward the past—the world that was—to find their means of survival, and memory scales are the keeper of that history. There doesn’t seem to be another source of memory in Kora’s life: there aren’t stories passed down in her family or heard from neighbors or community members. The family has little community beyond each other, becoming more and more isolated as their neighbors move away. But the memory scales offer barely any more connection. Kora’s knowledge is limited by how many scales she can afford as well as by how many can fit in her halo.
Kirilow Groundsel, in the fourth quarantine ring, initially has what Kora lacks: a community that shares knowledge, passed down from one generation to the next. She belongs to a village of female clones, called Grist sisters, who are able to reproduce through parthenogenesis. They have doublers, who gestate and give birth to new sisters, and starfish, who offer a kind of perpetual organ donation, able to regrow the organs and limbs used to keep the doublers and the other sisters healthy. The Grist sisters are undeniably strange, and Lai does not downplay that strangeness. But she also shows how Kirilow and the Grist sisters have community. Kirilow’s “mother double” teaches her history and memory: “We hold all that remains of the old world’s knowledge in our raw brains. That means we need to be extra smart” (p. 20). The first ring may have their memory scales, but the Grist sisters in the fourth have their raw brains, holding history in place through chanting and recitation. The community of knowledge is soon fragmented, though, when the village is attacked and most of the sisters are captured. Kirilow and the few others who escape are left alone with what they remember, their learning not yet complete.
Grist Village and the first quarantine ring may be wildly different communities, but both the mother double and Uncle Wai are in agreement about the importance of “the old world’s knowledge,” and take it as a given that knowledge of the past will lead to success in the future. They are not the only ones. In an early chapter, Kora passes a stall in the market “where denizens routinely swap out shimmering flakes and tendrils of information in a desperate attempt to know and so fix the broken world” (pp. 40-41). Though not necessarily focused on history, this passage emphasizes the association between knowledge and survival. To know the world is to fix it. To remember is to survive. The tragedy is that knowledge is out of reach, fragmented by circumstance and by the deliberate actions of those in power. Community, too, is fragmented. Kirilow’s community is destroyed by HöST, sparking a quest to find her captured sisters and to find a new starfish who will help the village survive. Kora also loses her small community, when her family sends her to the Cordova School for Dancing Girls. The school community is cruel and unwelcoming, and she spends much of the novel trying to get back to her family.
Some of the most interesting moments in the novel happen when fragmented knowledge and fragmented community collide, and history erupts onto the page. In one scene, for example, a crowd takes a drug called N-Lite, which causes them to project a collective vision in a green cloud around them. The projection shows the tigers associated with the flu in the novel’s title: “[Kora] sees a tiger-skin rug, a UMK official in prison, an incubation jar with a tiger fetus inside, then millions of jars row on row, and the first of the new Caspian tiger kittens, cute and fluffy” (p. 209). The crowd shudders and jerks under this communal vision of history: the Caspian tiger brought out of extinction and then, as the vision goes on, its bones turned into wine, and the wine linked in turn to the flu that has swept the world. The crowd’s high comes from the mere fact of history, the presentation of the story of their lives, whether or not it is comforting.
This scene, and others like it, gets its power in part from the narrative’s tightrope walk between giving and withholding information. But I also wanted to argue with the novel in that push and pull of knowing and unknowing. It is not so much that Lai leaves out the context. Rather, scenes are stuffed with references, events, emotions, and actions, everything driving the reader forward at such a pace that it is hard to slow down and piece together the background. For example, in a scene near the middle of the novel, Kirilow is in the back of a vehicle, blindfolded, approaching a border. There are gunshots, which causes one of her travel companions to respond in fear. The reason for the girl’s fear, though, isn’t the gunshots themselves, but what they indicate about the broader political background:
“You know that in the first wave of tiger flu we were bequeathed a nuclear arsenal to steward,” says Tania. “By stewards in the south who were dying in droves. We keep its operations top secret. For a long time, we held an importance balance of power. And then the UMK moved in on us. Many of our people find this state of affairs unbearable—including me. But it keeps HöST out. It keeps Cosmopolitan Earth country safe from the denizens of the other quarantine rings.” (p. 147)
This piece of dialogue makes several moves. It changes how the girl, Tania, is presented. Prior to this scene, Tania has spoken as one of the Cordova Dancing Girls, who have encounters with both Kora and Kirilow. Here, however, her position shifts, and she speaks on behalf of Cosmopolitan Earth Country, which is one of the powers in conflict with HöST (the corporation in control of Saltwater City). The UMK, or United Middle Kingdom, which she references, is another major power in the world. Her dialogue describes a fragile balance of power and introduces the impending possibility of nuclear destruction. But the explanation is also incomplete. Kirilow, who is our narrator for this chapter, hears the dialogue, but her narration does not incorporate this new information. As a result, readers have to make the connection for themselves between Tania’s information and the events of the scene. It took me three or four reads of the scene before I understood Tania’s dialogue: Cosmopolitan Earth Country (CEC) holds this quarantine ring, but is being occupied (unofficially) by the UMK—“moved in on us” meant literally. This political background is why Tania, Kirilow, and the others are stopped by a UMK soldier, but a CEC soldier is able to let them through the border. The explanation for their interactions with the two soldiers is embedded in the beginning of the scene and yet, because Kirilow’s attention is elsewhere (she is intent on revenge against another girl and rebels against the commands to keep her blindfold on), the reader has to draw those connections for herself.
Other story elements are left almost as ciphers, absences of explanation for the reader to fill in. Take the tiger flu of the title. The flu is linked to tiger wine, which is made from the bones of the Caspian tiger, brought out of extinction through genetic engineering. The link between wine and flu seems to be common enough knowledge. Kora is bullied by other girls for coming from the family that made the wine and therefore unleashed the flu on the world (p. 85). But the novel does not offer an explanation for how the wine causes the flu and, despite the flu, why people continue to drink tiger bone wine. I can come up with various explanations (about self-destruction, addiction, and despair), but if there is one provided in the text, I missed it. Instead, the social relationship to tiger wine and the flu is left to the reader to surmise.
The result of these references and absences is a storyline that is dense and surreal, driven by image and impression. Kora falls into daydreams and nightdreams that are barely a step different from her waking life. In fact, as the novel goes on, waking life becomes stranger than a dream. As mentioned before, Kora and Kirilow are drawn unknowingly into the heart of a conflict between Isabelle Chow, the head of HöST, and several adversaries. The battleground of this conflict is two systems that separate mind from body. One system uses an elevator and uploads the mind to the satellite called Chang. The second system involves a descent into a pool of water, and uploads the mind to a second satellite, called Eng. The descriptions of both these systems lean heavily on images that are distant from stereotypical futuristic technology, even the scrappy technology of so much science fiction. Their experience is highly sensory and physical. From within, the point of transition from body to uploaded mind is uncertain. From the outside, the transition is dramatic. Kora first sees the elevators to Chang from a distance. A group of girls goes up in one elevator: “Then the doors of the elevator beside it slide open. The foul odor of ammonia, sweat, and rotten onions fills the room, and water gushes out the elevator doors. There is something in it … ‘Fish,’ says Kora … ‘And roses’” (pp. 212-13). As with the wine and the flu, the novel does not explain how the technology transforms people into fish, but instead focuses on the repercussions of that transformation. The transformation of people into fish is a continual presence in the final third of the book and Lai uses it for emotional weight, as nearly every meal presents Kora and Kirilow with the dilemma of who they are being served.
Lai deploys her images skillfully. The through-thread of memory and the images of history bursting into communal awareness were particularly effective for me. Other readers may find other images resonate: the fish flowing out of the elevator, the Caspian tiger turned into wine and the wine into flu, the complicated rituals of doublers and starfish that keep the Grist sisters alive. There are many to choose from.
The fish, like the tiger wine, also emphasize the cruelty of this future. Food is not safe. People are not safe. Even those who are kind to Kora and Kirilow are ineffectual when it comes to protecting them. As a result, Kora and Kirilow push back against the world in an attempt to defend themselves. They scream when told to be silent. They run when told to stay. At times, I wanted to shout at them to just listen to each other, such as in a long scene where Kirilow tries to pull Kora out of the elevator to Chang and Kora resists, while the ominous sound of marching boots comes closer and closer (pp. 219-21). But the truth is, they have every reason not to trust anyone, including each other. Lai has written a future full of casual cruelty, which echoes the casual cruelties of our own time. This is apparent from the first chapter, where Stash Sack, a boy sick with the flu, assaults Kora. The scene is deeply uncomfortable. He grabs her and she says no. He nibbles her ear and she says no. The dynamic is too familiar, with the addition of the disease he carries. Does he want sex? Affection? To infect her? “I’m not gonna die just ’cause you are,” she yells at him, and he responds: “It isn’t fair!” (p. 16). Again and again we see others, including those with more power than Stash, respond in the same way—not asking for help, but demanding that others be dragged down with them. No wonder Kora and Kirilow spend so much of the novel saying no.
The final chapter is all the more powerful for the cruelty throughout the novel. Kora has found community; Kirilow has saved hers. Kora tells the story of history to young ones gathered around her, no N-lite or other drugs needed. They care for each other. They survive, though they are nothing like what Kora would have imagined when she was young.
Despite the power of these scenes and the evocative images throughout the novel, I struggled with The Tiger Flu. On rereading the novel, I could see how Lai layered images, references, context, and ideas into every scene. But my experience in reading was blunter than the nuance implied by those layers. With so much to keep track of and extrapolate from every scene, I focused on what I could understand, which was the more limited knowledge of Kora and Kirilow. I wanted to argue with the explanations these two teenagers could not give. I wondered: why does the tiger flu primarily affect men, and why does it only affect women “if they’re hungry enough, if they’re depleted enough” (p. 13)? How does tiger wine lead to the flu? Are the quarantine rings to keep the flu in, or out? Is Isabelle Chow’s conflict really about jealousy, or is that misdirection and propaganda? What is the relationship between the memory substances throughout the novel (N-Lite, forget-me-do, and Spider Dream)?
I struggled, as well, with the place of queerness within the novel. In an interview included at the beginning of my review copy of The Tiger Flu, Lai references lesbian separatism as one of the influences on the novel. One way in which that influence comes through is in an unexpectedly black-and-white depiction of queerness. In the world of the novel, at least as told to us by Kora and Kirilow, there is the heterosexual world and, opposed and opposite, there are the Grist sisters. If there are other references to queerness, I missed them (not impossible, given the layers of reference and hints at context). The focus on heterosexual vs. Grist sister is emphasized by discussions that identify reproduction as the important distinction, rather than sexuality or gender identity or other forms of queerness: “I don't really know what 'lying together' entails, though if you ask me, it sounds painful. You should be grateful you don't have to do it to make a daughter double. You and me—we are alike. We fruit!” (p. 326). The focus in this dialogue is on the mechanics of reproduction as the key difference. Certainly, the mechanics of reproduction are important, since that difference is what allows the Grist sisters to survive and eventually thrive as a separate society. But the dichotomy this creates seems to place queerness outside of humanity altogether: there are Grist sisters (not quite human) and there is humanity, reproducing by man lying with woman.
In the interview, Lai describes the future depicted at the end of The Tiger Flu, “There’s an implication the indigenous people inherit humanity, while a bunch of queer Asian women clones evolve into something slightly disturbing that survives.” That amazing vision describes a novel I would love, a potential novel that came in and out of focus as I read the actual text. In the end, I am not sure if that disconnect was more about me as a reader or about the text itself. Which brings me back around to where I started. For the right reader, The Tiger Flu is a surreal vision of survival in 2145, crammed with ideas and unexpected forms of community. I may not have been the right reader, but maybe you are.