The Patron Saint of Plagues is an apocalyptic prophesy masquerading as a near-future pandemic revenge thriller. Revolution has come to Mexico, resulting in a radical spiritual restructuring—splintering from the Catholic Church to form their own Holy Renaissance—and an aggressive expansionist policy. The United States, suffering from the collapse of its agricultural infrastructure, has recently lost Arizona and New Mexico to the Holy Republic. The populace has been fitted with wetware devices, the pilone network, that interconnect everything and everyone. Ascensión (the renamed Mexico City) is creaking under the weight of its population—nearly one third that of the U.S., squeezed into a valley barely sixty kilometers across. Into this compressed mass of humanity comes the plague, a two-stage dengue outbreak instantly dubbed “Big Bonebreaker” by the pilone network.
Enter the Centers for Disease Control’s secret weapon: epidemiologist Henry David Stark. Nicknamed “Patron Saint of Plagues” by fellow virus hunter Dr. Isabel Khushub, Stark is coerced into visiting Ascensión, where he finds, of course, that all is not as it seems. The Holy Republic of Mexico has its own agenda, the manmade Big Bonebreaker has been designed for a very specific purpose, and the religious foundation of Ascensión is being shaken by the revelatory prophesy of one Sister Domenica, remodeled citizen of the Holy Renaissance. Stark must stop the virulent spread of the plague while also trying to overcome the distrust of the very people seeking his help. As the plague spreads through Ascensión and threatens to burst the borders of the Holy Republic of Mexico, Stark and his team discover that Patient Zero—the creator and spreader of the dengue and the single person they need in order to build an effective treatment—is still in the city. Patient Zero isn’t satisfied with infecting the population; he has another plan in mind: killing the prophetic voice of the people.
Anderson’s deft assembly of this wide assortment of puzzle pieces makes for riveting reading and an immersive examination of the emotional and physical devastation of a viral outbreak. However, for all its high-tech high jinks and inventive scientific perambulations, The Patron Saint of Plagues is really a cautionary tale for our era. It is a tale of two symbols, two methodologies disguised as mythologies, on a collision course: Sister Domenica, the prescient reincarnation of the Virgin of Guadalupe, versus Rosangelica, the cyborg woman who secretly guides the Holy Republic of Mexico—the pilone network made flesh. Between these two extremes is the shifting symbol of the Patron Saint of Plagues.
Initially, it is a shallow sobriquet applied to Stark by the scientific world, but it becomes a symbol for Patient Zero as the latter vanishes into the spiritual quagmire of the apocalyptic flagellants who haunt the hot zones. Ultimately, the symbol is taken up by Sister Domenica as she adopts the true mantle of Sainthood (in a nice Holy Virgin-as-Gaia twist to the Fisher King motif, it is Stark, in his role as the questing knight who has returned from Chapel Perilous, who asks Sister Domenica what ails her, thereby allowing her to ascend into her realized Saint state).
Recent comments by Dr. Eric R. Pianka of the University of Texas were lifted (somewhat) out of context by the blogging community, which got in an uproar over his statement that the human species was in need of culling, a 90% reduction that could most effectively be accomplished by a pandemic virus. Lecturing about population dynamics, he was discussing the current state of humanity’s incessant population growth and how this growth is unsustainable by the planet’s ecosystem. Eventually the system will self-correct to bring itself back to a state of equilibrium. Anticipating the destructive potential of this correction, Anderson’s speculation through the vehicle of The Patron Saint of Plagues is to consider whether the concept of the pilone network furthers the model of humanity or accelerates the breakdown of the organic ecosystem.
In the book, the shattered United States has attempted, with its Land Reform Act, to return arable land to small collectives in an effort to rebuild a network of self-sustaining nodes, an aggregation of independent entities working in concert with the natural world, as opposed to the wired group-mind of the Holy Republic of Mexico that builds cities upon cities in a futuristic reconstruction of the Tower of Babel. Sister Domenica lays the burden of this question on Stark. Which is better? Which will preserve the species?
It’s a question that should be considered now. For, in fifty years, we might not have Henry David Stark to answer for us. By then, we may have forgotten the words of another Henry David who, two hundred years before, left the city for the solitude of a pond. Thoreau rediscovered the organic purity of man working in concert with the land. The brutish nature of society, as he declares and as Anderson warns, is that “[man] has no time to be anything but a machine.”
"Thrills Aren't Enough" by Paul Kincaid
The English language is a supple tool that has been changing to suit our needs for all of its one thousand plus years of history. We add new words, discard old ones, change meanings, vary inflections, elide, and distort; but what we do not do, except very slowly over a great period of time, is change the basic grammar of what we say. We do not abruptly drop the short connecting words (to, and) or common verbs (is) because to do so does not appreciably shorten the brief time it takes to utter our statements, but it does drastically erode the fundamental function of language, comprehension. Every so often a science fiction writer will decide to suggest how much things have changed in their future by introducing just such a tin-eared transformation in the language. Unless this change is radical, consistent, and carefully thought-out (as in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), it serves only to demonstrate how little feel for language the author actually has. Barth Anderson is the latest to follow this sorry trail in The Patron Saint of Plagues, giving his hero the verbal tic of speaking in just such an abbreviated language. All it does is make Anderson’s supposedly wise, daring, and above all intellectual hero sound like a moron. That it is not a living, breathing part of this future culture is indicated by the fact that Anderson himself forgets about it for long stretches of the novel, so that when, every so often, he remembers this verbal tic we stumble over it afresh as the grammatical rug is once more and for no reason pulled from under us.
You might gather from this that Barth Anderson is no great shakes as a literary stylist. What he can do is string along a reasonably competent thriller plot. Every so often—rather too often for real comfort—it has a storytelling-by-numbers feel to it, the machinery showing as he manoeuvres characters into unlikely situations or tosses in an extra bit of threat just to move things along, but when he gets excited by his story there is a great deal of energy in the tale.
Our verbally hamfisted hero is Henry David Stark (presumably named for Henry David Thoreau, though the sage of Walden doesn’t get a mention; peculiarly, the familiar form of address to Dr. Stark is the full "Henry David," a mouthful for someone who otherwise likes to abbreviate language so much), head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Curiously, Dr. Stark is presented as being a worldwide hero following his efforts in previous disease outbreaks, but his function is basically that of an administrator; there are few office managers who achieve a believable celebrity. It doesn’t help that our international hero is an American, for in this future the U.S. has little or no international standing. The big player on this world stage is Mexico, but that country underwent a religious revolution some time in the past and is now a sort of holy fascist dictatorship, its capital renamed Ascensión. Part of what allowed the revolution to work was a device known as pilone wetware, which links the mind of every citizen directly into the government net. Pilone was the invention of Joaquin Delgado, who went on to become an international authority on disease control and Stark’s teacher. Delgado hates the Holy Renaissance, and particularly the use it made of his invention, so he plots his revenge, releasing a fast-mutating form of dengue fever that targets precisely those antibodies that allow the implantation of the pilone. So the plot is rather mechanically set in motion: Stark is called upon by his country’s enemy, a government he despises and which does not trust him, to fight a disease that is killing thousands within days of its first appearance, and incidentally to fight his own teacher.
This contrived but effective plot is complicated by Sister Domenica. She is a nun who has achieved a reputation as a seer among the Mexican underclass, making her a focus of the resistance movement. And now her predictions, told to her by a vision of an Amerindian Virgin Mary, are forecasting the character and the vector of the plague with remarkable accuracy. Anderson never quite works out what to do with Sister Domenica; towards the end he contrives a partial science-fictional explanation for her character and behaviour, but her predictions might as well be the direct word of God. Nevertheless, she remains the most fascinating character in the novel, clear-sighted, intelligent, self-sacrificing, and driven by a far simpler and more accessible moral code than the somewhat murky confusions of alliances and betrayals in which all the other characters are enmeshed.
The battle against the plague and the murky workings of big, bad government follow a fairly predictable course, and the constant shifting of viewpoints without bothering overmuch about coherent characterisation is now the default structure for thrillers. (The idea that readers might be kept in the dark and drip-fed information only at the rate the protagonist discovers it seems to have fallen completely out of fashion, alas.) The political situation, which might be read as exploring America’s newest anxiety about its position in the world, might have been interesting if it had been more carefully and more subtly explored, but the American hero’s straightforward espousal of old-fashioned American democracy against vile (Catholic) Central-American autocracy undermines any real political interest. So we are left with an old-fashioned shoot-’em-up in which the intricately described hardware happens to be viruses and nanophages rather than guns and explosives. As such, it is competent, and Anderson has a talent for excitement, but this is one acclaimed new writer who doesn’t really seem interested in taking the genre anywhere fresh.
Mark Teppo lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he works on fiction while he is commuting and when people think he's gone off to the bathroom. He also writes for Igloo, Earplug, and OPi8.com. You may find him on the web at www.markteppo.com.
Paul Kincaid is the editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Companion. His fiction has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award, and his criticism appears regularly in SF Studies, The New York Review of SF, Foundation, Vector, and elsewhere. He has contributed to numerous reference books on science fiction.