Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Book Review: 'The K2 Virus' by Scott Rhine

Scott Rhine has an inquisitive, scientifically honed mind that he opens to the reading public with a series of fascinating science fiction/fantasy books – until THE K2 VIRUS, a medical thriller. He calls himself a ‘techno-gypsy, (working on optimizing some of the fastest and largest supercomputers in the world) yet now after meeting his goals of degrees and a family he turns to writing full time – and we are the ricer for it. One of the aspects of Scott’s work that makes it unique is his belief that ‘humor is a part of every story because people are funny, even when they don't think so. In the real world, something always goes wrong and people have flaws. If you can't laugh at yourself, someone is probably doing it for you.’

As the media is flooding us with stories of MERS, SARS, Zika, Ebola, duodenoscopes that cause disease rather than diagnose it, Scott’s story dealing with a mutated virus capable of mass destruction of human lives is a tale most timely. And to add to the tension he offers a preface that should seduce any shopping reader into reading this book. ‘Until this project was hijacked by a virus, it was an exploration into artificial blood and other medical nanotechnology. Yes, these things exist. The future is here. When civets were suspected of originating the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in China, thousands were systematically hunted and exterminated. Recent studies suggest that bats might have been the real culprit, as with Ebola. Nonetheless, the purge left a void in the ecosystem. The coronavirus has one imperative— multiply. If one host is eliminated, the virus must adapt to another. Almost any mammal or bird could be selected. Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the fifth and deadliest incarnation of human coronavirus, spread through camels. For the purposes of this story, I’ve invented a fictional variant of the virus, K2, that can spread through cattle. Otherwise, the science you’ll read is as real as I could make it. See the cover for a computer model of what the killer looks like under an electron microscope. SARS infected over eight thousand people, killing a tenth of its hosts. The Roman commanders used this tactic, known as decimation, to strike terror into deserters. Indeed, SARS terrified people around the globe by the speed at which it propagated. First it takes over your immune system, and then you become a virus factory, spreading the disease to anyone who gets within a meter. For the first two to seven days it feels like any other flu. After a week, most people get pneumonia. In extreme cases, the entire system crashes in an ominous event called a cytokine storm— a runaway feedback loop between the immune regulatory system and white blood cells. Smallpox, Ebola, the Spanish Flu, and all the big plagues had this end game in common. The old, young, diabetics, and those with immune problems or liver diseases seem to be hit the hardest. There is no cure. You just have to ride it out and stay away from others while you struggle to breathe. That’s not the scary part. Since the original leap to our species, the virus has been learning by trial and error. The next time we face the coronavirus, it will have made improvements. I described conditions in North Korea as closely as I could secondhand. The horrific famines of the 1990s killed over a million people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). No one knows the full extent because the figures were suppressed. Nor have I been in a DPRK labor camp. The descriptions are stitched together from statements from rare survivors and former guards who defected. You can see the camps for yourself on Google Earth. The similarities to Dachau are eerie.’

The story, richly and humanly related is summarized here: ‘A new variant of the human coronavirus, K2, sweeps through North Korea. An unsuspecting biochemist delivers a routine batch of flu vaccines to Seoul. When he agrees to play translator for an attractive reporter, he stumbles into a perfect storm of political and biological forces. If he’s going to survive, he’ll need all the principles of Taekwondo he’s been taught since childhood: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, a fast kick, and even faster footwork.’

Scott Rhine has discovered a line of storytelling that is thrilling, terrifying, educational, and supremely entertaining. Read this book. Grady Harp, June 16

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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