Like Madeline Ashby’s 2016 sci-fi novel Company Town, Larissa Lai’s new novel The Tiger Flu is set in a nigh-unrecognizable future version of a present-day Canadian city. For Ashby, Newfoundland’s St. John’s has become New Arcadia, an oil rig off the coast of the province that doubles as a city. The Tiger Flu has a different vision for the west coast. Set in the year 2145 by the Gregorian calendar, Vancouver has transformed into Saltwater City, a place full of shifting weather patterns that struggles to keep its infrastructure standing after oil disappeared from industrial use 127 years prior (for those of you keeping count, that’s 2018).
Saltwater City is being ravaged by the tiger flu, a mysterious illness that affects men more often than women. It is in this city that we meet Kora Ko, a teenage girl living with her family in a crumbling apartment building. Her brother K2 is already sick with the flu, and her mother and uncle are rapidly running out of resources to care for them both. They make the difficult decision to send Kora to the Cordova Dancing School for Girls, an institution that teaches young women the strength and power inherent in dances that fight back. Heartbroken, Kora determines to leave the school to reunite her family.
Outside the city is the hidden Grist Village, a place populated exclusively by women whose mutant clone ancestors abandoned Saltwater City before the outbreak of the flu. Kirilow Groundsel is the village’s best doctor. Skilled in both surgery and naturopathy, Kirilow cares for her lover, Peristrophe Halliana, whose unique self-repairing organs make her vital to the future of Grist Village. When a mysterious woman from Saltwater City infiltrates Grist Village, she brings with her the illness and sets off a chain of events that leave the village devastated and Kirilow alone on a journey to Saltwater City to find a way to rebuild her former life.
The depth of world-building in The Tiger Flu is apparent. The cultures and characters are clearly thought out and defined. This may be due in part to the fact that The Tiger Flu is Larissa Lai’s first novel in sixteen years, her last being Salt Fish Girl (Dundurn Press) from back in 2002. The science fiction universe in The Tiger Flu has had the time to form into a place so rich with detail and history that it supports the epic scale to which it aspires.
Observing Lai’s world from the perspective of the two young women, Kora and Kirilow, the immensity of the society’s structural issues and the futility of trying to effect real change in a meaningful way loom over the simple tasks each has set out to accomplish. Both of them simply want their lives to go back to normal, but in a world where the weather changes every two weeks and satellites are falling from the sky, normal must be something they define for themselves.
The Tiger Flu reimagines what science fiction can be when viewed through a female lens. The technology is biological, the settings are earthy, and the women are powerful leaders of cities, villages, societies, families, dancing schools, and more. Our heroines Kora and Kirilow are motivated by love rather than duty, their emotions are where they draw their strength from, and it is also their desire to put their families back together that leads them to confront the systems of power that are destroying the world.
In building a uniquely female bio-cyberpunk thriller, Lai has exposed the biases inherent in traditional science fiction, and the ways in which women are generally excluded from it and undervalued within it. Using the tiger flu itself, she turns this trope on its head. By sidelining all male characters with illness, Lai allows the reader to form a sense of how female characters are generally marginalized in a male-dominated genre like science fiction. By interrogating this dynamic, Lai finds the intersections where femaleness and science fiction can come together to create something new and ultimately refreshing.