I read Syne Mitchell’s Technogenesis and really enjoyed it, but The Changeling Plague was much less enjoyable for me. Like its eponymous title, this book’s tone mutates and morphs throughout the course of the plot. The characters were not particularly interesting to me, and the setting was sci-fi in the bad way, with essentially magic technology. Yet there were some interesting concept, and Syne Mitchell is constantly throwing curveballs when it comes to the plot.
The Changeling Plague first reads like an attempt at a serious, terrifying portrayal of the spread of a deadly, high-stakes epidemic, as in The Hot Zone (seriously, that book is terrifying). But The Changeling Plague is paced far too fast to build up that feeling, and there’s no sense that the book is building up to something. When the book throws in some super ridiculous crazy nonsense about halfway through, it’s completely unexpected, and lightens the tone a lot. The tone then oscillates between horrifying, morbid, matter-of-fact, and light-hearted.
One major detriment to the book is how “sci-fi” the tech is (in a bad way), with a complete lack of plausibility that piles up and jars you out of suspension of disbelief again and again. For example, my internal dialogue ran something like this: “Okay, that’s not actually how hacking or the internet works or will work at all in the near future, but I’ll run with that… okay, suuure, scientists are nowhere near being able to simulate simple biological systems, let alone complex simulations of human reactions to genetic therapy, but I’ll let it slide… okay, now I am pretty sure that kind of genetic modification is impossible, but I guess it’s necessary for the premise…” If that kind of thing bothers you, this probably isn’t the book for you. Especially if you study medicine.
It did not help that the characters were all pretty unsympathetic. Geoffry is an ass, although he eventually becomes less insufferable. Liliith, aside from having a suggestive mythological name that is half obvious foreshadowing, and another half obvious foreshadowing, is somewhat competent but somehow never actually has any success at her job of trying to cure the disease. Instead, she’s just an enabler for Geoffrey and Idaho. Yeahh, then there’s Idaho. Generally, the characters feel like marionettes on strings: I can see them reacting and I can see their motivations, but I don’t really feel those motivations or see it as authentic. Our insight into the characters is pretty much limited to how they react to immediate matters.
There are also a few major plot holes. For example, a disease more virulent and destructive than anything known erupts across the entire world. All of the US’s research programs are totally ineffective: yet then one person donates ~20 billion dollars to researchers, and the tide is turned. For context, the US NIH spends $25 billion a year; the US military gets $668 billion a year (and sends $68 billion to R&D); according to an article in AMA’s JAMA, private companies spend around $60 billion on medical research per year. If a disease as deadly and unexpected as The Changeling Plague broke out, I suspect government and private industry would both be spending far more than $23 billion total on trying to solve it, let alone rich people trying to find a cure / vaccine before it spreads to them. It’s also aggravating that one guy in a barn, just because he’s a hacker, can outdo thousands of researchers and specialists when it comes to figuring out the disease.
Cover Art Review: I really don’t see how the cover art relates to the story in any way. The cover art is really creepy, but it gives the wrong tone for the book. Personally, I also feel the cover could really make use of a few more colors.