Viral Nation by Shaunta Grimes is a novel for young adults about a brilliant autistic girl sent through time from a damaged, dystopian America (available July 2, 2013).
Clover Donovan is born in the middle of a virus outbreak which devastates the human population. When everything seems bleakest, the Company develops a cure—a suppressant that must be taken for the rest of her life. While the medicine is just in time for Clover, it is too late for just about everyone else on the planet.
When the dust settles from the outbreak, there are only enough people to populate fifty cities in the United States. Food is scarce. Energy scarcer. And there are only three routes available to a young adult like Clover: work, like her brother West; attend the Academy, which leads to prestigious positions; or work for the Company. After autistic, but brilliant Clover struggles with her fellow students, she is transferred from the Academy to the Company.
The Company, with its technological advantages, uses Clover as a Time Mariner—an operative who goes into the future and gather news about the future.
The news is not good.
Shaunta Grimes has taken her time and developed a timeline of events that is both engaging and believable in Viral Nation. The opening chapters detail the chaos of the viral time and then move gracefully into Clover’s present. There is no doubt in the reader’s mind how things got of control, or how Clover’s present came into existence. Grimes uses today’s concerns and exacerbates them to reveal how America got from point A to point B. She begins with Clover’s parents.
The world had collapsed around them while they told each other everything would be okay. The virus was only the icing on a cake with layers of energy crisis, climate change, recession, xenophobia, and a short but vicious civil war between the Midwestern and southwestern states over the need for illegal migrant workers on the farm and the desire to keep them out of the border states.
The media called that cake the Bad Times.
Clover comes of age in a world trying its best to overcome those Bad Times.
One of the elements trying to combat future Bad Times is the Time Mariners. After a scuffle at her interview into the Waverly-Stead Academy, Clover is recruited instead by the Company, who developed the Mariners. The Company thinks Clover, with her high test scores and unique attributes, will be an asset to their projects.
Clover choked on her next breath, and Mango lifted his head. “Kids aren’t Mariners. No one is, until after they graduate the Academy.”
“You’re right. But some lucky children—children with skills the Company depends on—are on the Mariner track. They start as Messengers. Do you know what a Messenger is?”
Clover recited a primary school textbook definition. “Messengers travel forward and gather the news from two years in the future, then bring it back to be analyzed so that problems can be solved before they occur. Messengers are the front line in the defense against a return of the Bad Times and essential to the operation of the world’s most effective justice system.”
Bennett smiled, showing a mouth full of very white, very straight teeth. “Exactly. Messengers protect us against another civil war or outbreak of disease. They are a big part of making sure that we can all live without fear. Waverly-Stead is dedicated to making sure that the Bad Times never happen again.”
However, once Clover starts her new assignment, she learns that her brother West—who has taken care of Clover while their father worked for the Company—is in danger. To save him, Clover must go up against the Company, which is, of course, not what it seems.
The strength of the story hinges on the reader caring about West—since he’s the one in danger—which Grimes does a good job with. One of the first descriptions of West is as a sick three-year old who is miraculously saved by the discovery of the viral suppressants. After that, West does the work to get food, which is no easy task in this world and involves a certain level of gambling.
But when you find out how much West has sacrificed to make certain his sister has a solid future is when you really start cheering for him.
Kingston pushed his hair back and settled his hyperactive eyes on the door for a moment before he looked at her. “Your brother is a day laborer on the cantaloupe farm, isn’t he?”
Clover nodded slowly.
“I’m sure you could go pick with him. Every job’s important.”
Clover took the letter and barely resisted the urge to crumple it into a ball and bounce it off Kingston’s sweaty forehead. “This isn’t fair.”
“Life isn’t fair, Miss Donovan. Ask your brother. West Donovan scored nearly as well as you did on his exams.”
Viral Nation is at times rather twisting, but there’s always Clover’s tenacity and West’s giving nature to make the ride worthwhile. The relationship between these two characters drives the novel forward—and possibly drives forward through a couple other novels. Grimes has created a world that is sweeping, yet tied to today—there are even some graceful quotations to root the reader in the real-world United States at the beginning of each chapter. It’s not too much of a jump to realize the horrors that are possible.
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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.