[Arsenal Pulp Press; 2019]
It is the Time After Oil (TAO) and the boundaries of what defines a human are under dispute. The brutal Tiger Flu has decimated the male population, leaving the continuity of humanity precariously reliant on powerful patriarchs with resistance to the bug, developments in cloning, and questionable mind-uploading technologies. Larissa Lai’s novel, The Tiger Flu, takes on the future with sharp attention to the intersections of climate change, sexism, and racism. Ever on the brink of absurdism, The Tiger Flu offers a vivid image of a world reworked by the bludgeoning combination of natural disaster and human invention. Lai’s book joins the ranks of dystopian novels such as Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, while also finding its voice through the dizzying wordplay characteristic of Lai’s poetry.
The novel alternates between narrators Kora Ko and Kirilow Groundsel, two young women whose stories eventually entwine. Both characters spend much of the novel battling the pain of personal loss; chasing the ghosts of their family members stunts their ability to form new relationships and move forward. Lai asks how we can form communities if we are too trapped in the memory of those who went before. Yet the novel also lingers on the potential for regrowth. Most literally, this regrowth appears as the ability of a few people to regenerate body parts. These Starfish serve as essential living biobanks for members of a cloned society in a world of profound violence and disease. Although initially disturbing, the bio-harvesting becomes a curious space of social connection that values sustainable use and lasting relationships.
Ultimately, one of the most disturbing elements of the novel is the perpetual allure and threat of uploading people’s minds. Drawn by the offer of a disease-free continuance, people choose a digital existence over embodiment. The reality of these uploads is always in question, hinting at a dark undercurrent of genocide. The promises of the tech giants seem fraught with power disputes and petty battles that enlist everyday people as lab rats. Lai repeatedly asks readers to consider whether someone who no longer has a body is still human. And, indeed, to wonder how we who are still in the flesh can trust that the upload has indeed taken place successfully. Although the memories of human companions in characters’ minds retain a vibrant humanity, the elevators full of fish left where humans stood before being uploaded offer a pessimistic take on this bleak hope of digitalized salvation.
Lai’s questions are not new ones for the speculative fiction genre, but her queer feminist approach offers new paths to exploring their answers. Unlike many more fully luddite dystopias, The Tiger Flu contrasts its blatant wariness for capitalist technology’s encroachment into our minds with a surprising empathy for those characters who employ cloning in order to survive. While implanted “scales” infest the scalps of Kora and her companions (the apparent technological counterpart of the parasitic lice that also hops about their heads), the relationship between Kirilow and her Starfish lover Peristrophe is referenced throughout the novel as one of reciprocity, complexity, and strength beyond the grave. Rather than Kirilow acting as Peristrophe’s parasite, we come to understand the couple as mutualistic and life-giving. The novel questions why we are so afraid of regrowing something as familiar as an eye, when many of us don’t bat one at the idea of attaching a computer to our brains. The Tiger Flu critiques both a flat trust or distrust in technology and instead pushes readers to evaluate who benefits from the technology, who bears the risks, and what purposes it furthers.
Lai’s writing shows a world plagued with fear and disease, yet still deeply founded in love. Love is a foundational emotion not only for her protagonists, but also for many other characters, and this gives the novel an element of optimism that is often lacking in such a dystopian setting. There is a deep trust in sisterhood, matrilineal knowledge, and the Earth that threads hope through the ugliness.
The Tiger Flu’s exploration of transhumanism is terrifying, whimsical, and gripping. The novel asks us to consider both the implications of our technological drive and questions of who belongs, who is part of a community, and what makes us human. The Tiger Flu succeeds insofar as it not only provides a provoking vision of a potential future, but also creates a lens for critiquing our current faith in technology and distancing from the Earth, each other, and ourselves.
Emma Schneider is a graduate student at Tufts University. Her research focuses on North American and Environmental Literature.