Johnson’s debut thriller could be more science fact than science fiction.
In a Tijuana slum, young doctors Carl Sims and Angela Varella inoculate residents and discuss possible lucrative careers. Varella, "Mama didn’t raise no fool," wants big bucks from big pharma. Sims is shooting for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's BSL-4 facilities, where he’ll work with the world’s most dangerous pathogens. Back at CDC Atlanta, Angela signs up for money. Sims is assigned to accompany former World Health Organization epidemiologist Dr. Jenna Williams to China to secure avian flu samples. Sims is disappointed. He’d rather culture sexy stuff like Ebola. Then, an emergency: A Laotian village is infected with a 60 percent–plus mortality rate flu strain. Back stories, motivation and action converge. Sims and Williams narrowly escape when the infected village is annihilated by a paramilitary attack. Then, Sims goes AWOL to explore an Alaskan mass grave filled with 1918 Spanish flu victims. Apparently, there’s a scheme afoot by rogue scientists to release a virulent flu virus and kill two-thirds of Earth’s population, a megalomaniacal plot to save the planet from becoming a lifeless rock due to climate change and overpopulation. The narrative shifts into hyperdrive when Sims is kidnapped and incarcerated at WHO’s Brazilian BSL-5 facility. Accepting the notion that millions—billions—could die if mutant flu viruses hop aboard globe-traveling airliners, Johnson doesn’t question that climate change and overpopulation are world-killers, but his narrative shines with admiration for scientists, CDC and elsewhere, doing yeoman’s work for an oblivious public. With enough acronyms to deplete three alphabets, Johnson offers some eye-glazing technical detail—"two surface glycoproteins, hemagglutinin and neuraminidase"—but it’s decipherable in context. Character development is minimal and the romance is counterintuitive, but Sims and Varella attend the Nobel ceremony as a married couple.
A scary premise. Get a flu shot. Wash your hands regularly.