The Cygnus Virus
TJ Zakreski
Dancing Star, 366 pages
Review by Steve Ironside

The search for life on another world is not without its risks. Some worry that we’ll end up advertising our presence to a dangerous civilisation who’ll come to enslave us; some worry the knowledge that we’ve contacted someone else will throw our own societies into disarray, and lead to the end of life as we know it. Or what if an alien intelligence were already among us, and then pops up in plain sight? How would we respond?

Moreover, what if a series of bizarre coincidences were to mean that this alien contact happened as the result of a great cosmic accident? The Cygnus Virus is born from just this notion. On the planet of Terra (spookily reminiscent of our own Earth), a depressed guy named Andron, reeling from personal tragedy, signs up to a SETI-like program on his computer, and manages to download a space-faring intelligence called Cygnus.

Sadly for Andron, this is only the first step on a road that will ultimately lead him on a personal journey he could scarcely have imagined as Cygnus turns him into his henchman, with plans to use cloning and a couple of tricks from his home planet of “Earth” to convince everyone on Terra that he’s the Second Coming. Along the way, Andron will make allies, be forced to make decisions that put his friends in harm’s way, and leave his old life far behind in his quest to get out from under Cygnus’ heel, and save the world from his diabolical plans.

Will Cygnus succeed or can Andron save the day? Well, obviously I won’t give that away – suffice it to say that when your opponent is a computer-based personality that can control the Internet then you’ll definitely have your work cut out for you.

It’s this quandary that allows the deeper themes of the book to develop, and they are interesting. There’s more than a hint of William Gibson and Iain M Banks here, as the story plays with concepts like trans-humanism, cyber-terrorism, the nature of humanity and immortality and the lengths to which one will go for survival. Whereas those authors’ worlds can be quite sterile, dystopian, disconnected places, Zakreski manages to keep the mood reasonably light, despite the darkness of a couple of the turns in plot. While it’s not a ha-ha-funny comedy, there’s a streak of humour to be found.

Cygnus is at the heart of a cult of personality built on lies, manipulation and greed. His rise to power, linked to the Church of the Holy Cloth feels very much like the rise of populist movements today. If this review had been written nine months ago, it’d be chalked up as a cautionary tale – now, it can be viewed as a perfectly-timed work of clever observational satire.

The book’s rhythm is great – the story flows along so well, in fact, that I was half way through the book before it occurred to me that it was written in the present tense. I’m not a big fan of this technique, generally finding it cumbersome and that it gets in the way of the story, but I’m happy to have found an exception that proves my rule. It feels right – almost like a series of diaries, or a documentary show.

I enjoyed the characterisation in this tale as well – from Andron’s beaten down yet still defiant outlook, to Cygnus’ Rockstar delusions of godhood, the main characters in the story feel complete, and have great and distinctive voices. The folks that Cygnus manipulates to advance his plans have flaws that make them stereotypes that seem all too real in our new world of post-truth politics.

The only criticism I have is that there are storytelling tools that do not survive the trip through this tale either. The opening chapters, with that documentary style, treat the events that set the story in motion as a kind of study in chaos theory. Once everything has been established, though, this whole external view is dropped. Given that this book is intended to be the first part of a trilogy, I wonder if this is something that will be picked up in later books. For now it just seems a strange way to approach the opening in comparison, but it’s not ultimately damaging to the rest of the story, so it’s more of a niggle than a complaint.

There are some clues as to how the planned trilogy may unfold, but given the generally completed story that this book delivers I’m intrigued by the possibilities. I’ll certainly pick up part two to see how the story develops. The Cygnus Virus is a book that I would suggest picking up if the idea sounds in any way intriguing to you; given the times we live in, a book which plants its flag squarely in “stick it to the man” territory with a side order of existential debate might be just the tonic that you need.

This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 7.