Review: The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai

Larissa Lai’s latest novel reads like a premonition—strange, but familiar. The Tiger Flu begins in the year 2145, more specifically one hundred and twenty-seven years after the oil reserves on the planet have dried up. Other bad things have happened: the planet has been wrecked by environmental disasters, acid rain falls from the skies, and half of the population has been decimated by a plague called the tiger flu, a deadly side-effect of de-extinction technology gone wrong. The novel begins with Kora, one of the two protagonists, fighting off an assault from a flu-sick man, covered in lesions, with pus-filled eyes, and grabby as hell. A jarring start, Lai primes her readers for the unrelenting cruelty she has in store for her characters. Violence comes in all shapes and forms in this dystopia, where survival is an art form. Hope is a scarce commodity here; nevertheless it is what drives the two women at the center of the action, human and clone, to come together to find community on a dying planet.

The Tiger Flu is a novel that’s been a long time in the making. It comes sixteen years after the release of Lai’s second novel Salt Fish Girl (Dundurn, 2002) — a magical realist tale of an ageless, shape-shifting female character, based in a futuristic Pacific Northwest where corporations govern cities and factory workers are cybernetically engineered. With The Tiger Flu, Lai continues her project of imagining sprawling visions of the future from the point of view queer, BIPOC characters fighting against systemic oppression. Drawing influence from writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy, Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, and Monique Wittig, Lai makes a compelling addition to the canon of female-centered dystopian fiction.

In the book’s acknowledgements, Lai notes that the idea for the novel was conceived in the mid-2000s. Perhaps it is this long gestation period, which makes the novel so effectively engaged with our present concerns. Worth noting is that in the years that Lai was working on the novel, the anthropocene discourse was entering the popular media (for more on the subject, read Eileen Crist’s “On the Poverty of our Nomenclature”). The term, which was initially popularized by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000, is a proposed geological label for our current epoch — one that formally recognizes the irrevocable changes made to the planet due to human intervention. Since the 2000s, the term has become common parlance. When used the ‘anthropocene’ evokes a future that is bound by environmental catastrophe and the public belief that individuals in the tech world will be our saviors. (In fact, at the time of writing this review, there was a sincere thread on Reddit about Elon Musk’s attempt to fix seven different humanitarian crises. Powerful fiction is one that responds to the world around it). In The Tiger Flu, Lai imagines a future where many of our current anxieties about climate change related disasters, the unpredictable yields of biotechnology, and the concentration of power in the hands of the 1%, have materialized in the worst ways possible. For example, the leaders of large corporations have amassed so much power that they’re worshipped like deities. “Hail Isabelle, full of place / Richer than the moon…allow the denizens of Saltwater Flats / To live long and well,” goes one prayer to Isabelle Chow, CEO of Höst Light Industries, who also happens to own the Moon.

The novel also evokes the writings of eco-feminist scholars such as Donna Haraway, Adele Clarke, and Kim TallBear who are thinking about the ways in which we can live in this world in a more ecologically conscious manner. In their work these scholars interrogate existing family structures and our current reproductive processes, which is also a major preoccupation of the novel. With the tiger flu claiming most of the male population, the men in the narrative are an afterthought. Instead, the focus is on clones who are either parthenogenetic, or have the ability to regenerate their organs. Lai presents a fascinating scenario of a community of women who are completely self-sufficient, imagining a unique set of kinship relations between female humans, clones, and nature. This queering of the future is the one truly utopian aspect of the novel and it’s pretty fabulous.

In 2019, the world of The Tiger Flu feels less and less like an improbable future. It’s a good thing then that the narrative ultimately errs on the side of hope. It’s funny too. The two protagonists have the classic good-guy-in-a-superhero-movie disposition, that allows them to move past the trauma of horrific experiences. The dialogue can be cringe-inducing at times—“By Our Mother’s milky left boob” exclaims Kirilow, the clone protagonist—but the action packed narration doesn’t allow one to dwell on the occasional clunky exchange. If the novel has one failing, it is that Lai tends to outpace herself. World building is no easy task and while Lai is certainly not lacking in imagination, most details about the dystopia are gleaned from context. It’s as if explaining away certain particularities about life in 2145 would get in the way of the action. But without this clarity, it becomes challenging to keep up with the plot. One of Lai’s futuristic inventions is a drug called N-Lite that simultaneously distorts and heightens perception. That may be the best metaphor for the experience of reading The Tiger Flu.

While reading the novel, Donna Haraway’s call to “stay with the trouble” came to mind. Staying with the trouble means “to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matter, meanings” (Staying With the Trouble, 2016). Almost as if in response to this very call, Lai states in the press release of the book, “this novel’s concern at its most basic is the ongoing possibility of life in the wake of so much horror and destruction.” In that regard her project succeeds. It provides space to its readers to reflect upon the world that their children will one day inherit from them. More importantly, it is a testament to the power of living with love for one another and with the hope for a better future.


Read an interview we had with Larissa Lai here.


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