Book Review

The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai

a super engaging contemporary sci-fi novel that sacrifices characterisation for an excess of plot

This is a strange novel and, honestly, even tho I read the whole thing over a very short period of time (and stayed up very late to do so), which implies I found it at least somewhat engaging, I still haven’t been able to firmly decide if I actually liked it or not…

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The Tiger Flu is published by Arsenal Pulp Press, an independent press from over on Canada’s West Coast, and perhaps a knowledge of the geography and landscapes of that part of the world may have helped me to understand this novel better, as it’s set close to the Pacific coast, but then again it’s also set post massive ecological and sociological collapse, so maybe current geographic knowledge would have made no difference at all.

The oceans have risen, the coastlines have shifted: maybe I should have just accepted the physical landscape of the novel was something I couldn’t know.

Yes. Ok.

It’s a sci-fi book, its narratives and technologies pushing it beyond the trendy “speculative fiction” label.

The novel was published in 2018, so predates the real pandemic that hit the world in the early 2020s (remember that?), yet Lai successfully predicted a major pandemic contributing to the societal collapse of an environmentally-ravaged world.

The virus – which isn’t really a major plot point in the novel despite it being the title (the tiger flu is more context than content) – was released when future people cloned then-extinct tigers by extracting DNA from an antique tiger skin rug, then bred (breeded?) loads of tigers and killed them then used their harvested bones as an ingredient in “tiger wine”, but unfortunately the tiger they cloned also brought forth a potent microbe that ravaged the world’s population, striking down men much more vigorously than women. Around this time in the fictional future, people also began cloning people and playing with genetic modifications on these clones, in particular making cloned people who are able to regrow amputated body parts (“starfish”) and cloned people able to reproduce asexually and birth litters of new cloned children.

There’s also a major plot thread about data transference through weird “scales” that are inserted into people’s nerve endings, lots of weird cults, satellites orbiting the planet which are giant external hard drives, companies that convert people’s bodies into food for others while uploading a facsimile of their consciousness onto the satellites.

There are also weird designer drugs, invisibility coats made from cats that are somehow still alive, people raiding supermarkets buried for hundreds of years to eat/sell the food, competing gangs, lots of hallucinations that are both internal but also somehow transmitted to the consciousness-uploading system and-

There’s a lot going on tbh.

A real lot of things going on.

The Tiger Flu is fun (I suppose, ultimately I have to agree that it’s fun), and it’s enjoyable trying to predict how the various plot threads will coalesce towards the novel’s ending, how the wider geopolitical situation of the story will impact on the protagonists, how one of the main character’s connection to the people who first cloned the tigers for tiger wine will affect what happens to them, but…

There’s too much plot, I suppose, is my takeaway from the book.

Too many things are happening alongside each other, leading not necessarily to confusion but – for me at least – a sense that there’s something… perhaps… absent from the text?

I’m going to say something that is close to blasphemy for my personal literary lifestyle: I think The Tiger Flu could have been twice as long. I think if everything had unfolded more slowly, if every character had more time to talk and interact with others, I would have enjoyed it more.

Now, of course, I’m over 30 and not right wing, so I understand that – as a general, but useful, rule – books with 500 or more pages have nothing to say – but this is a rare exception, in that I fundamentally don’t think this expression of Larissa Lai’s narrative and characters is long enough.

It’s an incredibly readable and engaging novel that holds thought and attention, but I didn’t find the narrative at all emotive, as I just felt there wasn’t enough time or space given to personal relationships and personalities in order to suck me in and get me weeping.

An interesting read but – and pray I never say this again about a 330 pager – way, way, too short.

byebye

Order The Tiger Flu direct from Arsenal Pulp Press here

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