In the following email interview, writer Sue Burke discusses how her political sci-fi novel Immunity Index (paperback, hardcover, Kindle, audiobook) takes place during a global pandemic, but was largely written before the Covid-19 outbreak. What’s interesting — or maybe “scary” is a better word — is that she also says that even if she had written it during lockdown, as opposed to before, it wouldn’t have actually been all that different.
Photo Credit: Daniel Lewis
To start, what is Immunity Index about?
The United States is on the verge of a mutiny, human clones are second-class citizens, and three young women discover they are clones. When a sudden epidemic produces chaos, a scientist begins to unravel what’s really happening. Each of the women must fight to survive, one as an essential worker who hates her job, one as rebellious college student, and one caring for a genetically engineered woolly mammoth doomed by the chaos. When the mutiny and epidemic begin, their quest for freedom will lead them to each other.
When in relation to the Covid-19 outbreak did you come up with the idea for this story?
I started work on the novel in March of 2018, before the virus existed. But the idea had been percolating since the 1980s, when I was covering AIDS as a newspaper reporter. This was when I first heard of Dr. Anthony Fauci and began learning about infectious diseases. I came away with two terrible lessons. First, AIDS was communicable, not contagious; sooner or later something was going to come along that was deadly and contagious, much like the Spanish Flu in 1918. Second, some lives are politically expendable. AIDS was ignored for too long because it seemed to be a threat only to gay men.
So did the real-world pandemic prompt you to change anything in Immunity Index?
In the spring of 2020, I was doing the final edits. I added a mention of a run on toilet paper. Otherwise, the real-world pandemic unfolded much like the one that had been foreseen by health experts for decades, and urgent measures to combat the disease were ignored or executed badly. Public health authorities all agree that to control an epidemic, telling the truth is an essential step, and that didn’t happen in my novel or in real life, with predictable consequences. As I edited, my heart broke again and again.
I can imagine. Immunity Index is set in the U.S. Is there a reason you have it take place there as opposed to in Europe or Asia or somewhere else?
I chose a place I knew well because I wanted the fictional world to be as real as possible. I grew up in Milwaukee and now live in Chicago. I’ve often visited Milwaukee’s City Hall and the University Of Wisconsin-Madison campus. I have family in Wausau. In addition, woolly mammoths used to live in Wisconsin. They seemed like logical places for a disaster.
Immunity Index is centered on three female clones. Is there a reason you made them women instead of men or people who are non-binary or a mix of genders? And in a similar vein, is there a reason they’re all clones as opposed to sisters or a woman and her two clones?
The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset said, “I am myself and my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I do not save myself.” I wanted to explore the idea of myself or identity, and the circumstance that would require a rescue of oneself if that self is multiple. I picked young women because I thought, having once been a young woman, I could portray it more accurately. Still, any of the other choices would have resulted in good stories — different stories, though, and I could only pick one story to tell.
It sounds like Immunity Index is a pandemic sci-fi novel, but not a post-apocalyptic one, more like pre-apocalyptic. Is this how you’d describe it?
I think it might be a political sci-fi novel. I believe that, just as all famines are political in nature, pandemics and epidemics are political in nature, too. That is, they result from public policy choices. There is enough food to feed everyone in the world right now, but we choose not to feed everyone. We know enough about public health to control an epidemic not perfectly but much better than we have with Covid-19. At every moment, we make choices as members of a body politic about public policy, and political choices will have consequences. What if an epidemic seemed like a good idea to those in political power? Ask gay men and Native Americans about how that turned out.
Immunity Index is not your first published novel. Are there any writers or stories that had a big influence on this story but not on anything else you’ve written?
Not specifically, but I reverse-engineer everything I read for the story-telling structure and techniques. I’m still trying to learn how to write a novel, and the learning curve is still steep.
What about non-literary influences; was Immunity Index influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
During one of the many painful rewrites, my agent asked me to watch the movie Jaws to study its narrative tension. That movie has a very fine climax.
And how about music? Because in the interview we did about your first novel, Semiosis [which you can read by clicking here], you talked about how Stevland in that story was named after Stevie Wonder. Did Stevie, or any other singers, have a big influence on any aspect of Immunity Index?
No musicians were harmed in the making of this novel.
Now, you have already said that Immunity Index will be a stand-alone novel. What was it about this story that made you think you could tell it all in 240-odd pages as opposed to in two books or three books or a never-ending series?
In my imagination, the most pivotal moments in the protagonists’ lives take place during the course of the novel. I hope these people enjoy relative peace and happiness for the rest of their lives, and nothing more needs to be told about them.
We’ve already seen at least one movie about the Coronavirus pandemic, Songbird. Do you think Immunity Index could work as a movie? Or a TV show?
A novel manuscript is about 300 to 400 pages, and a movie or television script is about 1 page per minute, but a skilled director can turn a thousand words into one picture. The story could fit into a movie, I think, but a brief TV series might work, too. We’re in a golden age of television, and many of the old rules have been thrown out in favor of greater creativity. Anything is possible now.
And if someone wanted to make an Immunity Index movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Peng and the clones, and why them?
Casting is an art and a science. I bow to the superior wisdom of people who actually know what they’re doing. However, I was asked to listen to the audition tapes for the narrator for the audiobook, and I recommended the snarkiest-sounding one [Chloe Dolandis]. That’s who they chose.
Finally, if someone enjoys Immunity Index, what sci-fi novel about a pandemic or world ending catastrophe would you suggest they read next and why that one?
The 2014 novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is an understated examination of the near extinction of humanity through a ghastly epidemic, and how we survive by remaining humane. Also, the story “So Much Cooking” by Naomi Kritzer, published in 2015 in Clarkesworld , is about a mother trying to feed and entertain a houseful of children despite increasingly limited resources during a horrendous bird flu epidemic. The story strikes the perfect balance between anxiety and kindness.