A cautionary tale by novelist Davies (Dollarville, not reviewed), who tries to unravel the mystery of the 20th century's greatest epidemic.
On the surface, this is a treasure hunt for tissue samples sufficient to map the genome of the influenza virus that caused the forgotten influenza pandemic estimated to have killed 40 million people worldwide in 1918. The story itself is a good one—scientific hubris, political meddling and miscalculation, and truly adventurous spirits—if only the author would tell it. Although the casualties of the "Spanish flu" (as the 1918 virus came to be known) rivaled those of the trenches (hundreds dead daily in single towns, the living too sick to keep up with the burials), it is the war we remember. Most of us nowadays look upon the flu as an inconvenience rather than a morphing creature that can periodically reappear in devastating strains, but, as the author makes clear, it is not a question of if so much as when the next virulent flu will kill millions. In Hong Kong, in 1998, one of these million-killer strains may have popped up—but thanks to extreme and highly unpopular decisions on the part of the government (including the slaughter of virtually all the island's millions of chickens), it was apparently halted. In a tiny mining town in the Arctic permafrost, the author joins a quixotic quest to exhume bodies of miners who died in the 1918 plague. Kirsty Duncan, an obsessive Canadian who increases her daily regimen of 1000 sit-ups to 2000 during endless days in the tundra, is the leader of that expensive expedition. Unfortunately she didn't know that two other scientists, Jeffrey Taubenberger and Johan Hultin, had already got sufficient samples in Alaska—Hultin having made it to the same difficult region of Alaska in 1951. Gerald Ford's Swine Flu debacle is also considered.
Despite confusing chronological leaps, frequent blurring of purpose, and much repetition (particularly in digressions on genetics), the information provided here is ignored at our own peril.