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The Patron Saint of Plagues
Barth Anderson
Bantam Spectra, 372 pages

The Patron Saint of Plagues
Barth Anderson
Barth Anderson's short stories have appeared in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, Polyphony, Alchemy, Talebones, The Journal of Mythic Arts, and a variety of other quality venues. Barth received the Spectrum Award for Best Short Fiction in 2004, and he writes regularly for Utne Reader's Best of Indie Press-nominated Wedge Newsletter. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and son. The Patron Saint of Plagues is his first novel.

Barth Anderson Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nathan Brazil

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"Fifteen May, 2061 Ascension, DF - President for Life Emil Orbegon of the Holy Republic of Mexico declared Zapata Hospital a national disaster Sunday night after fifteen doctors were found dead in the hospital's conference room. Initial cause of death was diagnosed as an airborne version of dengue hemorrhagic fever."
As first novels go, The Patron Saint of Plagues is a flawed gem. Set 55 years from today, it's part medical thriller, part speculative fiction, and part apocalyptic prophecy. The plot concerns a new virus, agricultural ruin and invasive biotech, complicated by radically altered religious and political divisions. The latter occur between a buoyant Mexico and a US where the economy has all but collapsed. The reason for this fall has to do with the farming methods used by American producers, which have left their crops vulnerable. When blight strikes, American agriculture is dealt a near fatal blow, reducing the nation to almost third-world standards. The basis for this is the fact that Mexican farmers have been encouraged to follow a policy of genetic diversity, leading to a situation where they have hundreds of types of corn, while the US has just four. The central character is Henry David Stark, a celebrated virus hunter, formerly of the American Centre for Disease Contol. Stark has taken time off from his high pressure work in the field of epidemiology to help his grandad with a local organic farm. But his break is soon interrupted when he is called back to assist a colleague from Mexico, who warns of a deadly new virus strain, spreading from its point of origin in the city of Ascensión, formerly known as Mexico City.

In this future, the United States has become a second rate power, forced to its knees by what amounts to biological warfare. Meanwhile, Mexico has risen to a powerful position among the world's nations, and has achieved local dominance. The Holy Republic successfully occupies the States of New Mexico and Arizona, and has plans to annex Texas. Mexico is also home to the pilone network, an invention of Joaquin Delgado, which is presumably a reference to a founding father of mind control, Dr. Jose Delgado. Pilone is biotech, beyond software, a biology based system that enables all its user to literally connect in an internet of the mind. The problem for other nations, is that pilone has a physiological limitation, in that it is only viable for those with a particular Mexican ancestry. Added to this mix is a resurgent Holy Renaissance within Mexican society, corrupted authorities, the cybernetic sabihonda Rosangelica, prophecies from activist nun Sister Domenica, and the continuing spread of infection. This is the complex and inventive backdrop to Stark's mission almost impossible, which is to contain the outbreak, locate patient zero and devise a cure. Patient Zero, by the way, is not satisfied with merely spreading the virus, dubbed "Big Bonebreaker" on the pilone net, he has a private mission of his own; to kill the prophetic voice of the people.

The Patron Saint of Plagues is billed by its publishers as a biological thriller, but that's only half of what it offers. The other half is an exploration of what might happen in our future, if agriculture is decimated, and fanatic religion controls revolutionary science. Nothing here is unique, the pilone net brings to mind Star Trek's Borg collective, and dozens of novels have dealt with the effects of plague and pestilence. But, the melding of these well trodden themes with descendants of a culture that goes all the way back to the Aztec and Incan empires, crossed with reversed roles for Mexico and the United States, does create something with a subtly different flavour. As for negatives, I didn't find the broken US completely convincing, and occasionally Anderson falls into the trap of having his characters display foreknowledge that they should not have. But the most serious flaw, mentioned at the top of this review, concerns his decision to have the lead character speak in a strange, abbreviated patois. This is apparently supposed to reflect the radical changes in society since current times. But for me it made Stark sound like he was nowhere near as smart as he was supposed to be. One other minor irritant is the pandering to market forces whereby the hero is still American, in an age where the US is supposedly on its knees, and Mexico is the dominant power. These issues aside, The Patron Saint of Plagues is a competent, often exciting work, well worth a look if the theme appeals.

Copyright © 2006 Nathan Brazil

Nathan Brazil
If Nathan Brazil were dyslexic, he'd be the dog of the Well world. In reality, he's an English bloke who lives on an island, reading, writing and throwing chips to the seagulls. Drop by his web site at www.inkdigital.org.


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