My former roommate and one of my best friends is here today with a guest post. I’ve been trying to convince Matt to be a guest on the blog forever, and I’m thrilled that I’ve finally succeeded! He’s somehow always up-to-date on modern science-fiction releases and finding great backlist books from the genre, like today’s feature. Today, he’s bringing us a review of a pandemic-style sci-fi thriller that takes a wild, unexpected turn in the direction of James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series, one of my middle school favorites. Take it away, Matt!
Now I know what you’re thinking. Who is this guy, and why is he reviewing something that’s been marketed as science fiction? And you’re right, Syne Mitchell’s The Changeling Plague belongs firmly in that spacey category and not in the YA section. Yet at its core, there are elements of this book that hit the reader as firmly as any pathos-appealing coming of age story. So, before you turn away and pick up the next Holly Black novel (you can do that afterward; The Cruel Prince has my seal of approval), consider this unique read.
The Changeling Plague drops you into a near-future scenario: the world has been rocked on its heels by an epidemic caused not by a random disease, but by a cure for hemophilia which got out of hand. We’re introduced with a heart wrenching scene where Lillith Watkins, an empathetic researcher from the Center for Disease Control, comes across two children in what was supposed to be an abandoned quarantine facility. Chained to the radiator, one of the children has contracted the new fatal Mahn’s disease. She dies in Lillith’s arms while the other, a bright blue-eyed boy named Idaho, is forced to watch his sister’s failed resuscitation.
This exposition does a great job of drawing the reader in. We want to know more about this ravaged child, and what will happen to him. We’re curious about the current epidemic, which Mitchell has only lightly touched upon. But instead of having our curiosity satisfied, we fast-forward four years to a point in the story where the original disease has been cured and Idaho has long-since run away from his foster home and no longer keeps in touch with Lillith. This confused me slightly, as we seem to have glossed over some pretty major formative years for both main characters.
We next touch upon Geoffrey Allan, a rich, spoiled billionaire dying of cystic fibrosis. In his desperation, he bribes a researcher to violate the ban on viral testing—a moratorium introduced as a result of the previous epidemic—to cure his CF. The cure works, but it wasn’t properly tested for safety and the retrovirus ends up being transmittable by air. If all it did was cure CF, that would be fine. Instead, it triggers a new global pandemic: the retrovirus edits random parts of the genome in individuals without CF. This results in a wave of fast-acting, contagious genetic disorders such as cancer and sickle-cell anemia. Allan is placed in quarantine and the genomes of thousands of people seem to become unstable, constantly changing.
There are a few caveats that detract from the story at this point. Unfortunately, the shoddy research done to create Geoffrey Allan’s cure also extends slightly to the author’s own research. Mitchell refers to the new retrovirus as being based in AIDS, and never once mentions HIV. We also have no explanation for why this new disease is suddenly an airborne problem, unlike HIV.
Science aside, Mitchell has done something very odd with Geoffrey’s character. Initially, he’s seen as a blank slate, and you get the sense that you aren’t supposed to connect with him. Instead, I found myself feeling more sympathetic to the billionaire who caused the deaths of thousands of people than to Lillith, who spends her time tirelessly trying to help the people he’s indirectly infected. By the end of the book, you’re really rooting for Geoffrey in an anti-hero redemption arc sort of way; you just feel sorry for the guy. Her character development of Geoffrey is as wonderful as her portrayal of Lillith is not.
During the months that follow this epidemic, the economy slows down and Lillith tirelessly works her ass off to search for a cure. She’s contacted several times by Idaho—who has become an extremely elusive hacker somehow—and they help each other throughout the book. Unfortunately, we never really get a good sense of Lillith as a character. I would have loved to see more done with Lillith, but so often her ‘inner thoughts’ are bland appeals to reason, throw-off lines to develop the plot that alienate us from her character.
As we get into the meat of the book, science nerds geek out while the rest of the readers will hit the snooze button. A good half of the 336-page novel revolves around the effects of this new disease and how scientists try to get a handle on it before it becomes a species-ending event. Eventually a vaccine is developed and is promptly distributed across the world. The book could have ended there, and it would have been a mediocre read, but for the character of Idaho.
Idaho and his troubled girlfriend, Exeter—there are a lot of odd names in the book—redeem the novel. Mitchell does such a good job getting into the head of these two that it makes me wonder why she didn’t do the same with her other characters. The entire arc with Idaho makes for an exciting experience, and this is where the book picks up some YA-style flair.
The first time we see through Idaho’s eyes, he’s immersed himself into the internet—almost literally. Living underground in a trailer, the kid has stuck electric needles into his body and jury-rigged a set-up to more easily surf the web. He’s the definition of a reclusive hacker, and his only visits are from his heroin-addicted girlfriend who also transports his food and supplies to him. It’s like Skeleton Man from Neal Stephenson’s Reamde. He becomes obsessed with the virus—termed AHMS—when Exeter contracts it. Through his connection with Lillith and the still-wealthy Geoffrey Allan, he’s able to obtain an entire genetic laboratory’s worth of instruments. Idaho promptly uses them to research the disease, and with Exeter’s help he finds a potential cure. Yet saving the world is not the direction Idaho goes: after helping Lillith, he begins tweaking his own genome.
Here, Mitchell’s created a great cast of counter-culture, jaded youth who are into body-modification. Idaho take their body-hacking a step further, using AHMS as the base template for him to wildly change himself. When another hacker finds out, he asks for Idaho to do the same to him, and the ‘changelings’ are formed. Here’s where Mitchell’s imagination runs wild. There are people who want spikes, people who want faster reflexes, people who want feathers instead of hair. There are drug addicts who get their brain to naturally produce the chemical they crave, leaving them perpetually juiced. It’s a wonderful portrayal of what people would do if they could truly edit their own genome. While the genetic editing seems a little powerful, it’s not out of the question that something like this could happen. I found myself thinking about the Geneva Accords and wondering if even today something like this is being done in secret.
Overall, the book is an amazing idea that could have been better executed. The concept of changing yourself, your identity, is a powerful notion that I think we all consider from time to time. “It’s just meat,” Exeter says when she asks Idaho to form her wings. The retrovirus, when shared amongst those who have contracted it, also homologizes the physical features of the infected. By the end of the book, Geoffrey has lost all of his identifying physical characteristics, but has gained an identity and a depth of character lacking when we first meet him.
At a few points there are some minor logic errors which detract from the plot. Geoffry Allan, an anonymous number in a containment system, is at one point referred to by name from a guard who could not have known his name. Additionally, a tragic spelling error gave us the ‘changeling plaugue’, the first and probably the only time we see the novel’s title in the text itself. Yet, despite these errors, it’s worth the read if only for the wonderful ideas Mitchell presents. The book left me inspired and excited to flesh out my own writing ideas, wanting to build off the author’s creativity!
The Changeling Plague combines two popular science and speculative fiction themes (pandemics and genetic modification) to mixed results, story-wise, but Mitchell’s creativity really shines throughout! For having been published in 2003, the book was also pretty ahead of its time in predicting advances in the field of genetics.
Many thanks to Matt, and be on the lookout for his review of Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince next week!!