Timing is everything. Lawrence Wright’s The End of October, about a global pandemic, was released just as Covid restrictions were starting to bite. As the pandemic in that novel was much more deadly, it put our current crisis into perspective. Last year also saw Carol Stivers’ The Mother Code in which the world pretty much ended due to a man-made pandemic. There are probably plenty of others. And now, coming in the middle of Covid-19 is Sue Burke’s Immunity Index. Mainly written pre-Covid but centering, at least in its early going, around a deadly, fast moving covid-style disease which may not, as it turns out, be completely natural… and clones.
Immunity Index is a five minutes in the future book which imagines an ongoing Trump-like presidency. The hyper-nationalist leader is called “The Prez” throughout and comes up with the concept of putting up a flag to combat the spread of what he calls the Sino-Cold. Now, if this was written before the first half of 2020, Burke has shown some world class prescience as to how a Trump-led government would respond to a growing Covid threat. But her premise goes further, into the dangerous territory of such a President ordering the creation and release of an airborne vaccine, a move that does not go well.
But this is all background. The plot actually focuses on three young women who, it turns out very early in the piece, are clones of each other. In this new United States, genetically modified humans, including clones, are second class citizens and known by the derogatory term “dupes”. They are second class because the ruling religious right believes that clones cannot have souls. All three of the protagonists are involved in a coming wave of protests against the current government known as the “mutiny”, a movement that is put back on its heels as the new strain of Covid starts to bite. There is a fourth POV character – Peng, a geneticist who created the clones and is now working to try and stop the current outbreak.
There is a lot going on in Immunity Index. Actually too much. And reader’s patience may depend on how much they are interested in even reading a pandemic-related thriller at the moment. Much of the first half of the novel is concerned with set-up of character and situation. So that while there appears to be some plot, most is taken up really pushing exposition and the rest is polemic dressed up as action as the “mutiny” gains momentum, aimed at an even more extreme form of Trumpian autocracy (although one that was not hard to imagine). Burke does not do enough to make readers care about side characters as they start dying from the pandemic. Or even to really care too much about the protagonists as they navigate finding out that they were not who they thought they were in a world that is swiftly going to hell. Which made Immunity Index occasionally interesting but never entirely engaging.