Sci-Fi as Accessible Movement Building: A Review of Larissa Lai’s “The Tiger Flu”
by Chloe Dunston
The Tiger Flu is set in the year 2145, which author Larissa Lai depicts as a “time after oil” divided by factions, gender, disease, and technology. After years of greedy leadership, environmental degradation, and the exhaustion of fossil fuels, Saltwater City and its outskirts stand alone in what was formerly Vancouver, Canada. Impoverished citizens known as Salties squat in abandoned and crumbling infrastructure, attempting to grow food in jars or survive on stolen canned goods. A satellite, Chang, has replaced the sun and is getting alarmingly close. People plug informational scales into their scalps for memory, communication, and to listen to music. Höst Light Industries, a long-tyrannic family tech company is now run by the revered Isabelle Chow, who citizens hope will save them all. The violent tiger flu, a disease said to be incubated in the Ko family’s (previously extinct) Caspian Tiger bone wine, runs rampant infecting primarily men.
15-year-old Kora Ko lives on the 40th floor of a city building in the First Quarantine with her older brother K2, mother Charlotte, uncle Wai and their goat Delphine. Charlotte and Wai fight about how to feed the kids as Charlotte’s job and Wai’s roof-grown and rotting potatoes are not enough. They struggle to protect Kora as disease and gang membership grip their family and decide to send her to the Cordova Dancing School for Girls where she learns how to steal and protect herself from her bully classmates. The self-reproducing women of Grist Village, Gristies, have lived in the bucolic Fourth Quarantine far from the epicenter of the flu since their expulsion from the city years before. Kirilow Groundsel, a renowned Grist groom, utilizes natural surgical and herbal techniques to facilitate her sisters’ births. Their utopia is threatened when a wandering Salty infects Kirilow’s organ-growing lover Peristrophe Halliana with flu and a subsequent attack from the city leaves her sisters kidnapped and the doubling matriarch Radix Bupleuri dead. Increasingly desperate for their families’ survival, determined Kora and Kirilow cross paths at the Cordova Dancing School for Girls, one a student, the other a school nurse. While treating Kora for an injury, Kirilow discovers she is the lost starfish that will save Grist Village and, potentially, humanity. First, they must escape the impending consciousness upload to the satellite Chang, which leaders assure citizens will preserve the mind without the body…
Through exciting and skillfully woven narrative, Lai layers critiques of hegemonic masculinity and its connection to technology, financial greed, and environmental degradation by juxtaposing it with heartwarming visions of lesbian communalism, strong connection to the earth, and embodied ways of knowing. In each moment, her engagement with feminist agendas productively urges readers to think more critically about society’s trajectory. In this review, I analyze some of the text’s main themes and literary devices to demonstrate the utility of science-fiction for movement building and to uplift The Tiger Flu as a strong exemplar. Through fictional writing, authors like Larissa Lai disrupt the boundaries that define the academy and hegemonic knowing, one of the text’s central themes, to call readers of perhaps non-academic backgrounds into collective consciousness and movement through accessibility and a sense of urgency. Lai accomplishes this primarily by physicalizing and juxtaposing core concepts with one another—tactics and content both freed in the science-fiction genre—which not only increases reader comprehension but invokes empathic connection with the text and its significance. Beyond accomplishing a pointed critique through this counter imaginary, though, Lai writes a story that is deliciously subversive in its own right, accomplishing a reconfiguration in the here and now, and offers us hopeful possibilities for our own futures if we right our course.
. . .
The worse things get, the more [Kora’s] mind turns to visions of the future. She sees the men waste and die. She sees whole houses shut their doors against the flu-ridden city, only to be consumed from the inside. Houses packed to the rafters with the corpses of men and boys, and the girls and women who stayed too close. Houses bursting with rot and sorrow. She sees these things so intensely that they have become the world she already inhabits. She moves through the present as though through mud.
. . .
I lay out the precious harvest on ice brought down from the mountains by our first-year initiates, all thirteen-year-old girls from Grist Village. At the door to my cave, Auntie Radix’s young groom is waiting. Soon the eyes that are darkening in that old doubler’s head will shine bright as halogen headlights. Not that I’ve ever seen halogen headlights, but I know the songs. Maybe you can wash my car, yes, I’m gonna flee a star. I know what stars are. They twinkle a little. They light up my wife. I know what cars are too. They are what the people from the time before used to get around, instead of walking. They doubled as wheelbarrows, for transporting food and herbs and found treasures.
. . .
Lai utilizes juxtaposition through metaphor throughout each of the story’s levels. This is most overt in the physical organization of the setting, Saltwater City, and much more nuanced in the characters’ traits and behavior. The men of Saltwater Flats, the ring just outside the city proper, are absent from the streets, stricken with fever, boils, and death because they are much more susceptible to the tiger flu than women. In stark contrast to dominant heteropatriarchal portrayals of men, this vulnerability and eventual physical weakness are perhaps a cheeky subversion, a counterblow to men’s historical greed and hubris in this story which takes our very world as the starting point. However, the situation of frailty and viral toxicity in the physical masculine body also more profoundly signals men’s historical toxicity, to humans and to earth, which they have achieved repeatedly through hegemonic masculinity: a “pattern of practice[s]…that [allow] men’s dominance over women to continue” (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005). We might consider male and masculinist leaders, for instance, who have ruled with greed for much of the world’s history, robbing and raping the earth as they have women, and leading civilization to the ecological collapse and destitute poverty we find in Lai’s fictional 2145. But, beyond discussion of power and hegemonic leadership, Lai demonstrates how power functions interpersonally, making masculinity’s flaws more apparent and personal as two of Kora’s intimates—a close family friend who sexually assaults her and her brother who fails to protect her—fall ill with the flu.
Stash Sacks, K2’s long-time friend, makes repeated unwanted sexual advances toward young Kora. In the first instance, he physically aggresses her, blurring the lines between play and assault as he wrestles her from behind, licks, and bites her while smiling. Kora successfully wards him off and escapes infection from his open flu wounds, but not without rebuke as a “little whore”—an encounter that likely resonates with many femme readers. Through the sickening metaphor of the tiger flu, Lai exaggerates and pathologizes this toxicity: specifically, Stash and other men embody toxicity literally through disease and figuratively through masculinity—both of which are, in fact, escapable. While the specific characteristics of hegemonic masculinity vary across time-space, hegemonic femininities are those that complementarily bolster masculinity (Schippers 2007), consent to and aid in subordination. Thus, this “disease” can be transferred to women as they are socialized and coerced—though many go eagerly—into participating in hegemonic masculinity. Lai demonstrates this possibility through the primary antagonist, Isabelle, who heads the tech company overtaking civilization. In contrast to the character of Isabelle, Lai offers a path toward escape from the confines of hegemonic femininity in writing Kora as highly agentic in protecting herself through pariah femininity, uncomplimentary and non-cooperative femininities that directly challenge masculinity (Schippers 2007). Yelling “I’m not gonna die just ‘cause you are,” Kora embodies a desire to escape, a refusal to be infected literally and figuratively—especially in the absence of other, even “trusted”, men’s protection—but a keen awareness of its possibility.
Grist Village, where romantic and maternal relationships flourish between women in the absence of men, functions as another challenge to and escape from hegemonic masculinity. The Grist Sisters are all direct descendants of Grandma Chan Ling and are able to ‘double’ without sperm due to a genetic mutation. Parthos (short for parthenogenics) birth litters of puppies from their “midnight egg space” while grooms cut their starfish’s regenerating organs to replace others’ failing ones. The Grist Sisters’ genetic makeup was intentionally mutated for exploitation by a company in Saltwater Flats. After they proved no longer economically useful, the ‘grannies’ experienced genocide and exclusion from the city. Exiled and considered vile and inhuman, the Grist Sisters are referred to with slurs like “tub puppets, fuck moppets” and “[s]lit sluts” because of their origin and reproduction. Such language constructs their existence as unnatural and sub-human, which Lai subverts and decenters through their simultaneous repulsion to men. Perhaps, then, this construction frees them to be super-human, untethered from a stale and repressive status quo.
Many of the women in this village regard the mere thought of men with disgust. When Kirilow captures a citizen of Saltwater Flats lurking near the village, she reflects with repulsion that “they have a second sex they call ‘men’ [who] are useful in Salty doubling technology.” This aversion, in addition to the Grist Sisters’ very existence, directly highlights and challenges the enduring hegemony of compulsory heterosexuality and the heterosexual imaginary. Each system works ideologically and materially to construct gender as dichotomous and complementary, facilitating heteropatriarchy by ensuring women’s dependence while both obscuring these power relations and their artificiality (Rich 1980; Ingraham 1994). The Grist Sisters challenge this false binary through their physical “deformity” and pose a threat to heteropatriarchy through their behavior perhaps related to this difference. Rather than ensuring male domination by “rendering invisible…the lesbian possibility,” the Grist Sisters make obvious a liberating and jealousy-inducing lesbian continuum (Rich 1980) characterized by many types of intimate female relationships. Even Kora, an unknown and mixed descendent of Grandma Ling, becomes aware of her own presumed heterosexuality and considers sexual fluidity as though something innate allows her to do so. Lai physicalizes sexual fluidity and associated liberation through the metaphorical embodiment of genetic mutation, making salient and directly challenging the status quo of heterosexuality that shapes the doomed world around them.
Furthering this critique of masculinity and heteropatriarchy, Lai challenges technological advancement through engagement with the epistemological concerns taken up by black feminist scholars. Patricia Hill Collins’ (2000) work on anti-black racism and gender politics highlights the power-laden process by which individuals claim truth. Positivism encompasses a scientific belief system in which objective truth is said not only to exist, but to also be obtainable through a linear and replicable process of systematic investigation. Ostensibly value-free, this paradigm is historically intertwined with and wielded by white cis-heteropatriarchy, which historically and continuously underpins Western higher education. Scholars who challenge or disengage from positivism—who are frequently scholars of color, queer, or femme scholars and, thus, even more harshly penalized—have been marginalized within or barred from academic knowledge production altogether; though, non-positivist ways of knowing remain similarly devalued far beyond the walls of academia. Revealing this system as inherently exclusive and (re)producing a monolithic experience and worldview, Collins (2000) champions epistemological approaches that build upon shared experiences and give voice to individuals’ unique standpoints. In particular, she argues for traditionally experiential ways of knowing and sharing practiced by many of the world’s cultures. She draws inspiration from black communities, for instance, who share communally their life experiences and the knowledge they build from them through conversation, storytelling, art, and song.
The contrast Lai forms between the Salties’ and Gristies’ “worlds” illustrates this very chasm between hegemonic and subjugated ways of knowing and is the novel’s most central meta-intervention. Grist Village is characterized by femininity, closeness with the lush, rehabilitated earth and embodied ways of knowing such as storytelling, singing, and dancing. The Grist women are in tune with their physical bodies, ancestry, and earth. Saltwater Flats consists of abandoned and crumbling infrastructure ruled by orbiting satellites that have replaced the sun and moon, informational “scales” that plug directly into scalps, and dwindling supplies of canned food. Most notably, the latest technology is said to separate human consciousness from the body and upload it to a satellite for life everlasting. Through such juxtaposition, Lai comments on the danger technological advancement poses not only for ecological balance, but also for the self. Due to their reliance on and complicity in positivism, Salties have been separated from and destroyed the earth and have severed ties with their humanity and from reality. Positivism, figuratively and literally, has rendered them less than human, rather unnatural.
In the concluding scene, Lai offers a return to the situated and subjugated knowledges that emerge from spaces of exclusion and oppression (Collins 2000), as she depicts previous Saltwater Flats resident Kora as a tree with new Grist sisters excitedly gathering under her branches to hear stories of a time before. This moment, a recovery of obscured human knowing and being, is most representative of the work Lai herself does through the novel, which is to disseminate productive critiques of our world to a wider audience of normatively excluded potential co-conspirators. Through this calling in and recovering, Lai recenters the novel as a rich site of a more collective knowledge production and, as such, a valuable movement-building tool. Through Kora, she says, we can all heal and return.
. . .
Our Mother of milk and mildew
Our Mother of dirt
Our Mother of songs and sighing
Our Mother of elk
Blessed are the sheep
And blessed are the roses
Blessed are the tigers
Wind, bones, and onion flowers
We remember you and we remember rain
We remember mushrooms holding the globe in their mycorrhizal net
We remember dust
We remember meat
We remember fibre in its weave and fibre in its weft
The shifting and wobbling of the intentional earth
. . .
I have argued here that science-fiction frees writers creatively, both in the content and literary devices available to them, which renders the genre uniquely able to convey complex theoretical concepts regarding social issues often withheld from or simplified for the “everyday” reader. Lai has made efficient work of this freedom, using extreme metaphor and juxtaposition to physicalize systems of power as she offers both a compelling warning and a hopeful vision to audiences ranging from gender scholars to leisurely sci-fi fans. Through captivating narration, Lai portrays agentic, intelligent, and passionate women saving themselves and humanity from a historical trajectory barreling toward catastrophe, recovering in the process ways of being and knowing that have been devalued and obscured. This beautifully written novel is a fruitful addition to academic syllabi and reading clubs alike and should reaffirm Lai’s spot alongside feminist sci-fi literary titans like Octavia Butler, who repeatedly demonstrate the radical potential of science fiction.