With some 2 million people expected to demonstrate for immigrant rights today, the tortured relationship between the United States and Mexico takes center stage again. Never mind the tensions inherent in unequal development on the global stage; if Mexico and the U.S. can't figure out how to align their economies to the mutual benefit of both, what possible hope does the whole world have?
Two weeks ago, How the World Works looked at the European Union, and wondered if North America could ever duplicate the open borders and free worker movement that the E.U. enjoys. My readers were pessimistic. Mexicans are too illiterate, they suggested, and can't be compared with the liberated populations of former Soviet bloc Eastern European countries. Mexico's government was too corrupt, and couldn't be trusted to do the right things by its own people that would allow for a peaceful, borderless coexistence between nations. Nothing will change.
One of the reasons I like science fiction is that s.f. authors are unafraid to imagine futures that are drastically different from the uncompromising present. Some call it escape; I call it imagination. This weekend I read a remarkable new science fiction novel that plunged directly into the Mexico-U.S. border wars. A first novel from author Barth Anderson, "The Patron Saint of Plagues" challenges readers who can't imagine fundamental change in North American power relationships.
Imagine a U.S. in which a virus has crippled agriculture by wreaking havoc on genetically modified crops. Imagine a Mexico in which the deployment of a new kind of computer network has hyperboosted the economy and led to the emergence of a new Mexican empire, on the warpath in Texas. Imagine another virus, a plague virus aimed at humans, that threatens to overwhelm all attempts to contain it.
That last part is the easiest to wrap one's head around. Hardly a day goes by when there isn't some new, disturbing news about bird flu spreading in some hitherto untouched nation. The world seems poised, more than ever, on the brink of a devastating epidemic, and it is no surprise that apocalyptic plagues, more than ever, are a staple of science fiction.
But "The Patron Saint of Plagues" isn't run-of-the-mill dystopian s.f. Anderson has some serious writing chops, and he delivers a page turner that is at once a medical thriller, cyberpunk romp and provocative tease: The U.S. is the third-world country, chaotic and in disarray, and Mexico is ascendant, the seat of innovation, global capital and power. It is a novel about race and class, science and faith.
"The Patron Saint of Plagues" is just plain good, but it resonated strongly with me by elaborating on many of the preoccupations of How the World Works: unequal development, the role of science as both boon to and bane of humanity, the embrace between technology and globalization. Anderson's future is provocative because it twists the world we know now into something different, but is at the same time extraordinary for how deeply rooted that future is in a present that is all too familiar.