The Momentum of Folly
(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)
Young upstart Dr. Carl Sims is moving on up the food chain at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta – though not as quickly as he’d like. While visions of Level 4 Ebola research dance in his head, Carl is dispatched to Guangdong, China, in order to track down an emerging flu virus. What was to be a rather mundane and tedious assignment quickly morphs into a battle for the future of humanity, as Carl is thrust into a conspiracy orchestrated by his senior colleagues. Led by his own superior on the assignment, Dr. Jenna Williams, the scientists hope to release the 1918 “Eskimo” flu strain, thus “culling” two thirds of the earth’s population and saving the rest from impending environment collapse. It’s up to Carl to stop them – that is, if he doesn’t decide to join them.
Robert Johnson has an interesting idea in The Culling – but, for whatever reason (or combination of reasons), the finished product just didn’t do it for me. Johnson is an adept enough writer, and mostly keeps a quick pace, but it takes some time for the conspiracy angle to get off the ground. The book – or at least the ARC I received – isn’t divided into chapters, which makes the story feel as though it’s unfolding more slowly than it is. Johnson fills the book with facts and figures that are supposed to drive home the urgency of the situation, but which mostly made my eyes glaze over. (To be fair, I’m already convinced that humanity is headed swiftly off a cliff. A member of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement – emphasis on “voluntary” – I can do Johnson’s “just two children” credo two better: I have none. So I didn’t really need any convincing, is my point.)
A significant problem lies with the characters, most of whom are simply unlikable. Carl’s actions often come off as stupid or selfish (often simultaneously), which makes his heroic sacrifice at the end that much less plausible. He knowingly boards a cross-Atlantic plane when ill – thus exposing hundreds of his fellow passengers to the bird flu – and then slips the quarantine once the plane lands. That this little gambit actually pays off is nothing but dumb luck. After he intentionally infects himself with the big one, he once again floats the idea of flying back to America on a commercial liner, only to be talked out of it by his roommate Stuart.
Stuart, by the by, is so juvenile that I have trouble believing he could hold down a job as a sandwich board dude, let alone a research scientist at the CDC. And love interest Angela? I can’t even with her. That she and Carl end up together after she knocks him out cold and steals his blood is the stuff of absurdist comedy. They seem to have little in common, and yet I can’t help but think that maybe the two deserve each other after all. Mass murderer Jenna is the easily the most likable of the main cast of characters, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Also problematic is Johnson’s emphasis on overpopulation to the near-total exclusion of overconsumption. A child born in the United States simply isn’t equivalent, resource-wise, to a child born in Zanzibar City; and yet the emphasis remains on “irresponsible breeding,” placing the lion’s share of blame squarely and undeservedly on the backs of developing nations. China, for example, is held up as an example of rampant pollution – all while ignoring that those smog-burping factories are in fact churning out cheap, unethically produced consumer goods for use in other countries, including the United States.
Rather than lecture those primitive third worlders on family planning (something Carl’s father made a career out of), why not focus your efforts on convincing consumers in developed nations to scale back their comparatively luxurious lifestyles? Or, better yet: clear the path for women in developing nations to decide how and when they become mothers by making birth control (including but not limited to abortion) both readily available and socially acceptable? (Developed nations, too: contraception remains a point of controversy even in the “enlightened” West.) Additionally, women’s rights are integral in this fight. When given the means and opportunity, women more often than not choose to have fewer children. Ending misogyny is a must. Yet Johnson mentions contraception just twice in 325 pages; the oppression of women, not at all.
On the contrary: several of the characters express agreement with China’s one-child policy – a state intrusion on women’s bodily autonomy. While they decry its lack of effectiveness, the idea of combating misogyny so that female children aren’t considered a “waste” remains unspoken. Women need to be lifted up, not talked down to.
As for our protagonists, Carl does pick a fight with Angela on her choice of car, but this is the only nod Johnson makes to limiting our impact on the environment through the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle – in that order). For all his self-righteousness, Dr. Carl – a highly educated man with ready access to multiple means of birth control – still manages to accidentally impregnate his girlfriend (and engages in presumably unprotected sex with Jenna, in a scene that’s weird, out of place, and not a little discomfiting. While not his boss in an official capacity, Dr. Williams is still Carl’s superior on this assignment – thus making the scene feel quite a lot like sexual harassment.) Angela considers getting an abortion…and then doesn’t. Presumably because Carl’s just so damn dreamy.
As a vegan, I’m disappointed (but not at all surprised) that our dietary choices and treatment of nonhuman animals (individuals, not species) receives absolutely zero attention, even as humans’ domestication of various species in animal agriculture is blamed for creating conditions conducive to the spread of lethal zoonotic diseases. Likewise, the irony of using billions of chicken eggs to grow flu vaccines passes unnoticed. (The very eggs used to fight the bird flu are produced in unsanitary factory farms – which themselves help to create the need for these very vaccines.) The Culling did introduce me to the happy (but as of yet small-scale) development of using (human) cell strains to develop vaccines, so there’s that.
Also, that bit about a frog boiling to death in a bot of slowly heated water, presumably because he’s too stupid to notice the gradual change in temperature? It’s a myth.
On the positive side, The Culling does feature a rather diverse cast of characters: Dr. Williams is a woman of color; Stuart is paraplegic; Angela is Latina; and the nefarious scientists hail from a variety of countries. Particularly amusing are Tian and Wen, the Chinese interns aiding Carl and Jenna in Asia, who take great pleasure in mocking and subverting Western stereotypes.
Two and a half stars, rounded down to two on Amazon.