Immunity Index - Tor/Forge Blog



eBook Deals Aplenty: April 2023!

It’s spring! Hope you’re taking a little time to smell the flowers, and take a big ol’ whiff of the sizzling hot eBook deals we’ve cooked up for this month.
Check ’em out!

The Way of Kingsthe way of kings by brandon sanderson by Brandon Sanderson — $2.99

It has been centuries since the fall of the ten consecrated orders known as the Knights Radiant, but their Shardblades and Shardplate remain: mystical swords and suits of armor that transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. Men trade kingdoms for Shardblades. Wars were fought for them, and won by them. One such war rages on a ruined landscape called the Shattered Plains. There, Kaladin, who traded his medical apprenticeship for a spear to protect his little brother, has been reduced to slavery. In a war that makes no sense, where ten armies fight separately against a single foe, he struggles to save his men and to fathom the leaders who consider them expendable. The result of over ten years of planning, writing, and world-building, The Way of Kings is but the opening movement of the Stormlight Archive, a bold masterpiece in the making.

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The Eye of the Worldthe eye of the world by robert jordan by Robert Jordan — $2.99

The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth returns again. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow. When a vicious band of half-men, half beasts invade the Two Rivers seeking their master’s enemy, Moiraine persuades Rand al’Thor and his friends to leave their home and enter a larger unimaginable world filled with dangers waiting in the shadows and in the light.

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Immunity Indeximmunity index by sue burke by Sue Burke — $2.99

In a US facing growing food shortages, stark inequality, and a growing fascist government, three perfectly normal young women are about to find out that they share a great deal in common. Their creator, the gifted geneticist Peng, made them that way—before such things were outlawed. Rumors of a virus make their way through an unprotected population on the verge of rebellion, only to have it turn deadly. As the women fight to stay alive and help, Peng races to find a cure—and the cover up behind the virus.

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Stan Lee’s The Devil’s Quintet: The Armageddon Codestan lee's the devil's quintet: the armageddon code by stan lee & jay bonansinga — $2.99

A five-person special ops unit, composed of a diverse assortment of former Navy SEALS from all walks of life, are responding to a terrorist threat deep in the Caucasus Mountains when their mission goes south in a big way. Facing certain death and torture, they’re unexpectedly offered a Faustian bargain by the Devil himself, who grants them unearthly powers in order to send evildoers to Hell on his fiendish behalf. But “The Devil’s Quintet” do things their own way, fighting to protect America and the world, while trying their best not to let their hellish new abilities corrupt them beyond redemption . . .

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Five Books About Contagions with Hopeful Endings

It might seem a bit on the nose to read books about contagions right now, but what better than a book to give you hope that we’ll make it to the other side? Here are five books about contagions that plague worlds from our near past to our distant future, and the indomitability of humanity in building relationships of love and joy despite them.

 By Yvonne Ye

Place holder  of - 98Immunity Index by Sue Burke

Orphan Black meets Contagion in Burke’s novel as three perfectly normal young women in Wisconsin, discover that they are all clones of each other. Meanwhile, the gifted scientist who made them races to find a cure for a rapidly-spreading virus while battling the cover-up that would conceal the virus’s sinister origins. Around them, the nation destabilizes in the face of disaster, food shortage, and a burgeoning fascist regime.

Image Placeholder of - 42Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters by Aimee Ogden 

What happens to the Little Mermaid after the fairytale ends? When a devastating plague strikes her husband and her adopted people, Atuale takes to the stars seeking a cure. In order to do so, however, she’ll need the help of Yanja, the powerful World-Witch, but it’s been twenty years and a vicious war since these childhood friends have seen each other last, and Yanja is no longer the person that Atuale once knew.

Poster Placeholder of - 38The Endless Skies by Shannon Price

Rowan has been training for her entire life to become one of the Leonodai, one of the famed winged-lion warriors who guard the floating city of the Heliana from the evils of the world of humans. But just before Rowan can take the oath and assume the mantle, a disease strikes the city’s children, forcing the Leonodai to depart for a dangerous mission seeking a cure in enemy lands. Meanwhile in Heliana, Rowan learns of a terrible secret—one that would force her to choose between becoming what she’d always dreamed of, and saving everyone she loves.

Placeholder of  -91Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

In Mandel’s intricate and lyrical novel, the world is ending, has already ended, or will end very soon as the Georgia Flu sweeps through the world, halting human civilization in its tracks. Twenty years after the epidemic, Kirsten Raymonde travels what was formerly known as the Midwest with the Travelling Symphony, performing Shakespeare after the apocalypse. When the members of the troupe begin to go missing, one by one, the Travelling Symphony strikes out for the “Museum of Civilization” on a journey that explores faith, family, and the importance of storytelling in a world recovering from disaster.

Image Place holder  of - 26I Am Legend by Richard Maltheson 

No list about apocalyptic contagions would be complete without this title, which already has at least three film adaptations. After a viral plague causes all of humanity, both living and dead, to turn into vampiric creatures, former factory worker Robert Neville spends his days fending off vampires, scavenging to survive, and teaching himself virology to figure out exactly what caused the plague. The arrival of Ruth, the first human survivor he’s seen in three years, might change everything for the better—or bring it all crashing down.


Pandemic vs. pandemic: I Thought I Was Writing Fiction

Image Place holder  of - 5What is it like to have a pandemic book come out…in the middle of a pandemic? Sue Burke, author of Immunity Index, talks about her latest novel, living through a pandemic, and more in the below guest post. Check it out here!

By Sue Burke

At the end of February in 2020, I bought a little extra food and a little extra toilet paper. Not a lot. I was trying to be reasonable, even though I was terrified.

I had just begun final edits to my novel Immunity Index. I’d started it two years earlier, and the plot included… a coronavirus epidemic. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. If science fiction often examines the present disguised as the future, we knew one thing for certain in 2018: sooner or later, an epidemic, even a pandemic, was coming.

I’d been through epidemics before. When I was about six years old, my parents took me to a mass public health clinic to eat a soggy sugar cube in a tiny paper cup: a polio vaccine. A year later, like most of my classmates, I got chicken pox and was miserable, with pox in my hair, on the soles of my feet, and everywhere in between.

Two years after that, my mother took my brother, sister, and I to the local health department to get blood drawn because something called measles was coming. Soon it arrived, burning through my school. A boy a grade ahead of me died. At one point the fever made me hallucinate. Never throw up when you’re hallucinating. When we were well, although I was still emotionally traumatized, my mother took us to have blood drawn again “so they can see what changed in your blood and figure out how to keep other kids from getting sick.” I was proud to help.

In the 1980s, as a journalist, I covered AIDS, which had begun to appear among gay men. I learned a lot about viruses—and about who matters politically. I wrote obituaries and reported on funerals, sometimes weeping as I typed. I first heard of Dr. Anthony Fauci.

In 2018, with a novel in mind, I began researching epidemics. It was depressing. Ed Yong’s article in the July-August 2018 issue of The Atlantic hurt the worst. “The Next Plague Is Coming: Is America Ready?” Short answer: no. We had invested vastly less than we should, he wrote, and yet a repeat of something like the 1918 Spanish Flu would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. (Covid-19 has actually cost $16 trillion, according to a pair of Harvard economists. Ed Yong turned out to be an optimist for once.)

Still, public health authorities had been trying to imagine how to prepare. A 2006 Health and Human Services report recommended stockpiling surgical masks. A 2014 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report discussed social distancing. Every document, especially those with recommendations based on the 1918 flu epidemic, called one thing essential: tell the truth so the public will know what to do. “Success relies upon open, honest, transparent, and clear communications,” said the US Health and Human Services Pandemic Influenza Plan, 2017 Update.

In 2018, I didn’t have to imagine government leaders failing to tell the truth.

These plans, however, all expected an influenza outbreak. I chose a coronavirus, usually the cause of the common cold, because it can be deadly, as we had recently seen with SARS and MERS. Even the common cold can kill.

So I wrote a novel, then rewrote it several times, tying together four separate plot strands, shortening the timeline, and heightening the tension. And I killed a lot of people, as I tend to do in my fiction. But fictional deaths are one thing.

On March 11, 2020, I got a hair cut in anticipation of some upcoming events, just in case. By the end of the day, those events were being called off. A few days later, toilet paper disappeared from local stores. On March 15, I began self-isolation. I was 65 years old, and the news terrified me.

Regardless, I had to work on that novel. I also keep a personal journal. I wrote in March, 2020, that I was a feeling depressed. The nation would not be ready. I noted with horror that in Madrid, Spain, where I used to live, the ice rink had become a morgue. During the following month, I wrote that I felt glum, irritable, fidgety, weird, nervous, and even hopeless.

On short neighborhood walks, I saw closed businesses, the plants in the windows slowly dying. A nursing home down the street needed PPE, so I donated a box of nitrile gloves I happened to have. I turned in the manuscript and had more time to feel pointlessly angry.

Finally, on May 6, I wrote: “I realized today why at times it felt upsetting to be writing this book while Covid-19 was raging: the book portrays a better situation than our reality, and it has a happier ending than what we might face. This is a grim book, but maybe not a dystopia by comparison.”

My fiction was better than my reality. That gave me nightmares—especially knowing that it didn’t have to be this bad.

I am not writing this to ask for sympathy. Save it for others. I’m fine. I hope you are, too. My loved ones and I got through this relatively unscathed. No one died. Our finances survived. For too many people, this pandemic has meant disaster after disaster. I live next to a food pantry, and the line continued to grow all last summer. Things kept getting worse—far worse than initial expectations.

So I gave what I could to help others, distracted myself with some fine books (thank you, Tamsyn Muir), protested with great social distancing for Black lives, and attended some online events and science fiction conventions that tried hard to be enjoyable. I muddled through. If leggings count, I always wore pants. Now, I am vaccinated and waiting for my husband to be fully vaccinated so we can resume a normal-ish life. I want to hug people again, and they tell me on Zoom that they’re ready and waiting.

This hard year left us all hurting. Far, far too many people are dead, needlessly.

In the end, I learned that things viewed in the convex mirror of imagination may be closer than they look. We’re always writing about the present, sometimes too much about the present. And we’re writing about the past, too.

My book is set partially in my home town, Milwaukee. In 1918, the leadership of the Wisconsin and Milwaukee boards of health quickly spotted the threat of the coming influenza. They closed schools, theaters, and other public gathering places. Milwaukee’s Socialist mayor, Daniel M. Hoan, made public health a city priority. Flyers were passed out in poor, crowded, and immigrant neighborhoods in a variety of languages. Boy Scouts put up posters and placards. An emergency hospital was set up in the City Auditorium, staffed by student nurses and instructors from the Wisconsin Anti-Tuberculosis Association. Young women wealthy enough to have access to automobiles volunteered to drive them as ambulances.

As a result, Milwaukee, despite its especially dense population and high proportion of immigrants, lost 2 to 3 residents per 1000; the national average was 4.39.

We didn’t need to suffer as much as we have in this pandemic. But you already knew that.

Sue Burke is the author of the award-winning novel, SemiosisImmunity Index is out from Tor Books now. 

Order Immunity Index Now:

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Excerpt: Immunity Index by Sue Burke

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Place holder  of - 95Sue Burke, author of Semiosis and Interference, gives readers a new near-future, hard sf novel. Immunity Index blends Orphan Black with Contagion in a terrifying outbreak scenario.

In a US facing growing food shortages, stark inequality, and a growing fascist government, three perfectly normal young women are about to find out that they share a great deal in common.

Their creator, the gifted geneticist Peng, made them that way—before such things were outlawed.

Rumors of a virus make their way through an unprotected population on the verge of rebellion, only to have it turn deadly.

As the women fight to stay alive and help, Peng races to find a cure—and the cover up behind the virus.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Immunity Index by Sue Burke, on sale 05/04/21!

Chapter 1

I, Peng, designer of life and master of its language, began my day tasked with the unsealing of a package of dead chickens. Three chickens, to be precise, sent express from a farm in Iowa to the lab in Chicago where I labored. My life had come to that, and I hoped it would not grow worse. I still had much to lose. Every day I looked death in the eye and quaked.

To stave off impending disaster, I activated the armatures inside a biosafety cabinet to slit open the seals of the package. I sat on the safe side of the glass window. A coworker stood next to me, as was protocol, and offered encouragement; we took turns doing the physical donkey work, a small act of mutual kindness to share the burden. We were about to perform a crucial task. Together, we would discover exactly what had ravaged a distant flock of chickens to determine whether it would also ravage the Earth and all of its biota.

“Wanna bet what it is this time?” my fellow donkey asked.

The armatures eased out the half-grown chickens, their feathers soaked in blood. I shuddered. Life offered splendor, death only repulsion.

“You okay?” the donkey asked.

“I feel better when they send vials of fluids.”

“Me, too. Someday this job is going to make me puke.”

A minimum of two people worked in the lab at any given time, but the exact staff varied by the day, as did the shift, depending on who was available and how much work there was. We were contract donkeys, all pretty much alike. Efficient. Skilled. Reasonably friendly and often enjoyably snide. Willing to take turns on the most disagreeable jobs, like handling bedraggled blood-soaked chickens. Bored out of our minds despite the urgency and terror, but we needed to earn a buck, so we were doing this until we could find something better. Although I might never find a better way to hide.

I said, “Given all the blood and detached heads, I conclude that they died of knife wounds.”

She laughed. Today’s fellow donkey was a middle-aged woman, a refugee from flooded New Orleans, one of the few from that disaster who had been allowed to relocate while the rest languished in ghastly camps. She was wasting enormous talents in this job—and she had just asked me the most worthwhile of questions: What was it this time? The specific answer—the specific cause—meant life or death. If a flock of fowl (or some other assemblage of livestock) fell ill, farm managers would slaughter and incinerate the animals. Or they would douse them with some kind of treatment that might be worse than the affliction but would cut their losses.

If we had reason to believe that the answer we found could endanger more than just that flock or species, we could try to trigger a national or even worldwide emergency, for all that shamefully underfunded public health services could do. Meanwhile, we would all pray, stiff with fear, asking our various gods to keep us safe from everything being created by nature or fools with gene-splicing labs in their garages. Major havoc was being wreaked in too many places. Inevitably, and no doubt soon, it would reach us. (You might think that all this responsibility would be reflected in our paychecks. No.)

“I’ll collect some of the blood for analysis,” I said for the record.

She made a note. “We’ll get external material in the blood, too. Feces might add special flavor notes to the final dish.”

“A full autopsy would be wise,” I added. That was the running joke. It was always true that we ought to be performing a more in-depth analysis, especially given our usual findings.

“Not in the budget.” That was the cynical punch line, although obsolete. Budgets had increased lately, but it was soothing to think that closer scrutiny hadn’t become our anxious routine.

“A safe bet,” I said, “would be avian infectious bronchitis.”

“Yeah, a safe bet for big operations.” She hated big farming operations, although we owed our jobs and dinners to them and the flabby lumps that chickens had been overbred into.

I gave the machine a few commands, then checked the electronic label. “These were free-range chickens. Outdoors. Maybe they got it from wild birds.”

“I heard that chickens outnumber wild birds in Iowa.”

“That’s the most disastrous thing I’ve ever heard. We took all of nature and overran it with chickens.”

“I can top that disaster. The Sino cold.” After a moment, she added, “Sorry. I hope that isn’t a problem for you.”

Yet another epidemic had befallen China, and anyone who looked Chinese might be shunned. Or murdered—apparently some misguided patriots considered homicide an effective vaccine. Unfairly, too, since that coronavirus had been traced down to a wild boar carcass revealed by thawing permafrost in Siberia, nothing Chinese about it, and China had responded fast and well. Borders had slammed shut like guillotines, the population frozen in place by quarantine, medical procedures applied with rigor and success. But everyone was jittery about epidemics, China was an enemy, and slander was a potent weapon. She knew me by my official name, Huning Li, not my artistic name, Peng, but both were unequivocally Chinese.

And she saw my broad, elderly man’s face and heard a slight accent I tried but could never erase. With my wispy white beard, I could pass for Confucius rather than Peng, and as Peng, I had once been known as a lovely woman. Gender presentation ought not to serve as concealment, it ought instead to serve as one’s genuine identity, but a bullet in a lung can lead to desperate measures. I, founder and CEO of SongLab, designer of life and master of its language, was protected from death by that glass wall and from my creditors by bankruptcy, but little stood between me and fools.

“We face death in many ways,” I said.

“A new one every day.” She then entertained herself, but not me, by reciting some of the known pathogens threatening our health or food supplies. Her tasks during that shift included a sample of feces from sick pigs, and she would soon set about examining it.

Then three soil samples arrived by certified courier and were dropped off in the airlock to our clean room. Did the soil contain the fungus that was blighting bean crops in Mexico? Urgent question. I took some cultures. Common cloned strains of beans offered no resistance to this fungus. Evil genetic engineering and the evil nature of cloned crops (not irresponsible practices by profit-hungry corporate farms) had endangered the world’s food supply, and by extension, me and the children I had once genetically designed and cloned.

Rancor, thy name is Peng.

(Or the fungus could have been a targeted biological attack, but at what target? The answer was beyond my means to know, but recent turmoil had made me believe in its possibility. Rancor was always epidemic.)

As I was finishing the cultures, the cameras in the automated reception area showed a hazmat-clad courier dropping off a container marked with top-level biohazard warnings.

That was unusual.

“Received,” I said over the speakers. The courier waved and hurried out. The container cycled through the airlock into the clean room. I dropped what I was doing and opened it. Inside were ten vials of human blood. We were tasked to determine whether the bloods’ previous owners were infected with the Sino cold (a variety of delta-CoV, to be properly more technical—or better yet, Stone Age boar coronavirus).

I checked the instructions again, hoping I was mistaken.

“Who sent this?” my coworker demanded. Another very good question.

“The label gives randomized ID. Corporate knows exactly who. We’re not supposed to know.”

“I’ll let you handle those samples.” She noticed my eyes wrinkle from a wry smile behind my face mask. “Hey, I got kids.”

“Retirement can’t come soon enough for me.” I began the search for viral RNA in the blood, and if I didn’t find that cold, what would I find? Presumably the patients were ill from something awful.

By then, three hours had passed, and the chickens’ death had a cause. She looked at the report on the screen. “Avian infectious bronchitis, like you said.”

Another gammacoronavirus, a familiar foe. “Ah, but what variety? Databases want to know.”

I studied the output, then the raw data from the RNA bases. The program had compared strains and highlighted unexpected differences. “Oh, now this could be bad,” I said, master of the grammar of base pairs, seeing a potential death sentence in the wording. “Look right here.” A hologram screen created a three-dimensional representation of a protein. I rotated it. “Coronaviruses have a proofreading function, which is expressed here, and this variation isn’t in the databases. I don’t know how this segment would function. And I should.”

She gave me a side-eye. Perhaps I had said too much if I wished to remain incognito. Few people shared Peng’s skill in predicting genetic changes. Or perhaps she hadn’t wished to imagine that chickens or, worse, wild birds were coughing up mutant viruses all over Iowa.

“Then it’s a good thing those chickens are dead,” she said. “But take a look at this for bad. Parasites in the pig shit.”

I came to look. Her screen displayed an unmagnified sample that contained smooth, pale worms several centimeters long. They were twitching. I shuddered and looked at her other screen, which displayed a genetic breakdown of the contents.

“Nematodes,” I said.

“You sure?”

“I’ve seen them before.”

“I wish I had your memory.”

“I mean the worms, not the DNA.” But I lied.

“What kind?”

“The world has far too many nematodes. Perhaps Ascaris, given the size and location.”

And so they were, as she was able to confirm: big disgusting roundworms, living in pigs no less, not quite Ascaris suum or lumbricoides or anything else, so either we had a new species (for which we wouldn’t get naming rights), or a mutation (which was becoming far too common across all species for a long list of reasons), or some careless fool had been tinkering with the language of life (also distressingly common). Both pigs and humans, and perhaps other animals, could be at risk.

“How dangerous is this?” she asked.

“Veterinarians could tell us.”

After a moment, she said, “I wish they treated pig shit more responsibly on farms.”

Whatever this worm was, its propagation was only one easy mistake or minor disaster away from our drinking water.

“If a stable has burned down,” I murmured, remembering a quote attributed to Confucius, “do not ask about horses, ask about men.”

She looked at me.

“Worry about people, not animals,” I said.

“You got that right.”

By then the soil sample was ready. No fungus. (Yet. Sooner or later it would blow in on the wind.) We joyfully reported that.

She looked over my shoulder at the initial results from the blood samples. Delta-CoV had been isolated from six of the ten.

“Oh, no!” she said. “Not here!”

“They could have come from anywhere,” I said, knowing the samples were more than likely local. “And it matters which virus.”

“It’s delta,” she said like an accusation. Sino was a delta, and the only one of that genus that affected humans—so far as we knew.

“We can compare it to the Sino virus,” I offered.

She backed away, as if the virus could propagate through the screen. I worked rapt, finally able to see this monster up close. Yes, it was Sino—but no, it wasn’t. Not quite. My fingers grew cold from fear. I called up a model, then twisted and turned it and slowly grew both more and less frightened.

“Look,” I called out to her. “The neuraminidase is different. I don’t think it would be effective.” I pointed to a section of the enzyme.

“Effective at what?”

“I think the virions couldn’t get out of the cell to infect someone else.”

She gave me that side-eye again, uncertain of my competence.

“I have two Ph.D.s,” I admitted. Actually three, but one had been merely honorary and subsequently withdrawn.

“How did the enzyme change?”

“Good question.” I quickly thought of an answer. “If I wanted to make a vaccine, this could be one avenue, a sort of attenuated virus.” Rumors said China had begun development, although rumors eventually asserted everything.

Her eyes got wide. “Yeah, that would work. Shaky ethics, though.” She had a Ph.D., too. As I said, she deserved a better job than the one we had. “Who’s doing this?”

I read her the serial number of the client. “I hope they have high ethics.” We often had doubts about our clients—and in this case, I had grave doubts. Or hopes.

We filed our reports marked by the categories Urgent and Alert, and destroyed our samples (terror prodding us to noble thoroughness), and thus our workday ended with the discoveries of a mutant virus proofreader that might devastate Iowa fowl at any moment; unfamiliar and dangerous worms on a digestive tour of pigs; safe soil (for now); and damning evidence of tinkering with an enemy epidemic. When I stood up, I felt dizzy from fear.

We left the lab, housed in what resembled a dreary warehouse in a part of Chicago notable for its dreary warehouses, and we went our separate ways. I enjoyed the warm evening air on my fear-chilled fingers. I wanted to go to the elevated train stop because I liked human company and got too little of it, aware more than ever that we could all die far too soon for no good reason. Sharing a train car with other passengers would bring me comfort. But as I waited for the train that evening, I heard a child’s voice.

“Look! Is he sick?”

I didn’t hear the response and instead decided to travel by other means and in safety, alone except for wraiths of fear and a never-vague memory of the feeling of a bullet piercing my chest. I left the platform, descended the station’s quaint old steps, and outside on the sidewalk, I raised my phone to call an autocar.

A man wearing military fatigues approached. “Dr. Li?”

This wasn’t going to be good, and lying wouldn’t help. “Yes,” I said.

“Could you please come with me?”

Fighting wouldn’t help, either. I canceled the call. “Of course.”

“Thank you,” he said. “I want you to know you aren’t in any trouble.”

I didn’t trust his words. Confucius and I both believed in benevolence. In his long life, he had suffered exile, arrest, and attempted assassination. I was already too much like him.

Copyright © Sue Burke 2021

Pre-order Immunity Index Here

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