As a fan of intelligent speculative fiction in general (*more on that later) including well-written apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction, I was happy to be provided with a copy of The Zeno Effect for review via NetGalley. My expectations weren’t high after looking at the summary of the existing reviews, but on reading the reviews thoroughly, I realised that what disappointed some of those readers, actually increased my desire to read the book. It seemed to me they were looking for an action thriller and instead found the book to be a more considered, perhaps to them slower, investigation of what would happen if, in a hypothetical future, a divided England and Scotland were at the centre of a world-altering pandemic. Reading the author’s bio and discovering he taught at the Universities of Essex and York, and was the Head of the Sociology Department at York, I was further encouraged—after all, how much of what would happen in an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic scenario would be down to functioning of human society? In my opinion, quite a lot.
Happily, I can report I was not disappointed. The Zeno Effect started out as a dramatic political thriller along the lines of Le Carré (with maybe a hint of Graham Greene)—with the crossing paths of scientists, politicians, spies, and a journalist caught up in the maelstrom of a dangerous virus released into the wild—and evolved through into a dramatic apocalyptic thriller which, though more modern, reminded me of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, and P.D. James’ Children of Men. Some of these influences were seemingly conscious as both Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Earth Abides were actually mentioned in the narrative.
As always, I like to write my reviews for the prospective reader and therefore do not like to go into plot details for fear of spoilers, but I will say that The Zeno Effect is intelligently written and not at all boring or lacking in plot. I started reading this at bedtime, expecting to be up for a half an hour or so, and before I realised, it had been two hours. I finished the book the following day; the story was obviously compelling. It did make me wonder about the initial middling reviews I’d read and, as I said previously, I think their lack of enthusiasm really may have stemmed from the book being different from their expectations. Looking back at my first impressions of the book now, it occurs to me this may have something to do with the cover art. I’m not a book designer, but in my opinion, it seems to follow the design conventions for mysteries and light thrillers and the large red Z was more than a little reminiscent of the covers for World War Z. For those who were consciously or subconsciously influenced by the cover to choose the book, perhaps there may have been an element of disappointment when they discovered the book to be different (more, in my opinion) than what they were expecting. They say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ and I’d say, especially in this case, that is exceptionally good advice.
When I say I appreciate intelligent genre fiction, I mean books that are as crafted in writing and construction as any story would be within the literary genre. There are variations within any genre, but I think this is amplified in speculative fiction and science fiction where we have authors like Margaret Atwood, Cixin Liu, George Orwell, and Alastair Reynolds sitting like gems amongst the penny-laden coffers of zombie, vampire, and prepper fiction. (Though I readily admit that there are exceptions even within those subcategories). Given how difficult it is to find this kind of quality in such an eclectic and prolific genre, I am happy to have found a new book to add to my library and a new author to to keep an eye on in the future. If you’re into intelligent speculative fiction, I’d recommend you give The Zeno Effect a read.
by Miko M
"The Zeno Effect" is not a book to be taken lightly. Tudor's cautionary tale, predicated upon one man's misguided altruism, delineates the potential for a pandemic of epic proportions. Science fiction merges with science fact as the story unfolds in an all too realistic way. Tudor's unerring attention to detail allows us to understand and engage with the diverse characters as they meet this deadly virus and its repercussions. A well written book, well worth reading.
by V R Clifton
As part of the approach to developing vaccines, people investigate viruses. Indeed in a few, very secure, labs hideously dangerous viruses are kept alive in order to study them. Examples include smallpox, various plagues, hantavirus and so on. But what if the rest of the world is also playing around with these? Wouldn't it be better to have a virus that changed itself, so you could always be aware of what monstrosities could occur?
Enter the Zeno Effect.
This is a form of genetic tinkering that results in viruses that undergo rapid mutations, far quicker than normal, in order to prevent vaccines from ever being able to keep up with them. How is this supposed to help stop people dying from viruses? Literally no one knows. Still, must be a fun experiment to be involved with.
Unfortunately, it's not fun enough that one of the scientists doing this research doesn't want to kill off most of the human race in order to prevent an overpopulation problem he's seen coming. He's presumably a member of the more militant offshoot of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.
Easy enough then, for him to wander out of Porton Down with a vial full of something horrible and infect the world. And so begins the deaths.
The world is thrown into turmoil pretty damn quickly, and a small band of scientists, journalists, intelligence specialists and people with more traditional skills have to get together to do their best to weather the storm. This will include running from the inevitable mobs, trying to form new communities that don't fall into religious mania or feudalism, and updating their website.
What follows is an updated form of the "Cosy Catastrophe" genre, as indicated by the recognition of the importance of that book in the afterword. It also has parallels to Survivors, and I think I detected a hint of The Death of Grass.
However, it's also heavily influenced by the politics of today. Looking back through books I've read in the past few years, it's possible to see the trends. We had zombies again for a while, and there's been a resurgence of the superhero genre, which I think it mostly due to Marvel, but there's also been a few recurring themes in dystopias. We've had political drama, based on the increasingly partisan status of the US under Donald Trump and it's creeping control of women's rights. There's naturally the ever present overarching threat of climate change and the influence it has on population dynamics.
But the other theme, perhaps unsurprisingly, is walls and borders. Whether we use them to keep things in, or keep them out, they're very much in the public consciousness. One of the major plot points of this book is that in the near future, IndyRef2 was finally successful following a ruinous Brexit and an authoritarian "English" government, and there's no small disagreement with the Auld Enemy.
It's a studious book, which is both a strength and a weakness. The author has a academic background in sociology, and there's a lot of exploration of the ideas of society and how it might fall apart. That also includes some serious consideration to the alternative approaches to working together that might develop after the end of the world. It's not afraid to dig deep into human nature.
At the same time, that means the book can come off a bit sterile. There are a few sneaky elements involving the various countries' spycraft, but the muckier aspects of the destruction tend to be skimmed over. Still, it's compelling enough that I bashed through it speedily, helped along by the central characters, who have a fair bit to survive while maintaining a semblance of morality. Good for thinks, less for thrills.
The book is a tantalizingly dangerous thriller and perhaps part of its danger lies in the fact that it seems a little too plausible for comfort in today's political and terrorist-themed world- it has all the elements to keep readers in their seats, if only on the edge.
Born in Edinburgh. Graduated in sociology. Taught at Universities of Essex (1966-70) and York (1970-2012). Head of York Sociology Department 1988-1994, and founding head of Department of Theatre, Film & Television, 2006-2010. Published five books and numerous academic articles, as well as writing a regular film column in the 1970s and 1980s for the magazine New Society.