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The Culling by Robert Johnson

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It’s just one of these improbable coincidences for which I routinely berate authors when they indulge in them, that I should happen to have two epidemic/pandemic novels to read in such short order. For this I make no apology. It’s just the way my pile of books to review happens to have worked out. And with that cavalier dismissal ringing in your ears, here we go with The Culling by Robert Johnson (Permanent Press, 2014). Before any detailed comments, it’s perhaps appropriate to think back in history to the Black Death which, as the name suggests, was very efficient in reducing the world’s population by about one-third. If we come forward to the last century, we had the devastating Spanish Flu which, following on the very successful attempt by humanity to slow population growth in World War I, further reduced the total number of humans by about four percent.

Why should we care about this now? Well, there are already too many of us for the ecosystem to support. Although we in the west are relatively comfortable, there are several billion people living in vey marginal conditions. If climate change is real, agriculture will soon be even more adversely affected and these second- and third-world countries could quickly find themselves facing famine conditions. Radical environmentalists might therefore believe it was time to reduce the world’s population to more sustainable levels. To achieve this end, all they need do is weaponise a flu virus for which the majority has little or no immunity. Just to remind you that this is science fact with Ron Fouchier, from the Erasmus Center in Rotterdam, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, from Wisconsin University, redesigning the H5N1 virus to make it transmissible between mammals in 2011. In 2013, these two responsible scientists proposed to have a go at improving the chances of H7N9 being able to infect humans. They obviously don’t think nature is doing a good enough job on its own. After all, when we had 130 cases of H7N9 in Shanghai, only forty-three of those infected died. With a little help from science, the virus could do a lot better.

Returning to fiction, let’s not forget, Stephen King had a form of superflu released in The Stand. In George R Stewart’s The Earth Abides there was only one survivor. So whether the flu (or other disease) is released deliberately or accidentally, the moral of stories like this is that the hubris of man knows no limits. Either the scientists believe they can contain the outbreak or they are the stereotypical mad scientists on a mission to. . . Well, some are into compulsory eugenics, or think an adjustment in the racial balance of our world is necessary, or that there are just too many of us. In the cinema, remember the Resident Evil series with the release of the T-Virus, or Quarantine which is a rabies virus released by a nutty cult, or Utraviolet where a scientist engineers the “hemophage” virus. In novels, Frank Herbert’s The White Plague kills women (saving aliens the trouble in the “Screwfly Solution” by Raccoona Sheldon), Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood has scientists wipe out most of the population with a genetically engineered disease, BioStrike by Tom Clancy has ecoterrorists create an Ebola variant, and so on. In other words, this trope has been extensively covered (and that’s before we get to all the books which have plagues of zombies arise when the magic virus gets loose, e.g. the Newsflesh trilogy by the pseudonymous Mira Grant).

All of which makes me surprised to see a “straight” publisher jumping into the science fictional fray with such a tired idea. The only conceivable justification for agreeing to publish a polemical novel of this type would be that this variant says something interesting and relatively new. Sadly that’s not the case here. Although there’s an attempt to supply new clothes for the Emperor with a frame story based on the very real problem of overpopulation, the twists and turns of the plot to spread the infection assume these “mad” scientists are grossly incompetent terrorists who have obviously never read How to Start a Pandemic For Dummies. This plot is seriously lacking in credibility with weird goings-on in Laos, and a quite extraordinary “escape” from a secure facility to cap an increasingly desperate attempt to spice up the “adventure” side of the book. The characters of the key people are sketchy and the final resolution of the relationship between Carl and Angela is absurd. If ever there was a book where I could offer the advice sincerely, this would be it. So without further ado, The Culling is a book to avoid like the plague.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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