Mind Virus by Charles Kowalski
This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher. I'm sorry I could not give it a better review, but the pledge is to be honest, so here it is!
There is at least four books titled 'Mind Virus' or something very similar, so the title is not unique, but this one sounded interesting to me. While it started out well enough, the more I read of it, the more it felt like a diatribe about atheists than ever it was a novel telling an engrossing story.
Normally I applaud an author who takes the road less traveled, so I was initially thrilled with the off-the-beaten-track approach, but the story devolved into trope, and in the end, bogged-down in the diatribe, and it really forget to tell us anything interesting, engaging, or worse: actually credible.
Call me warped, but it was amusing to me that I lost faith in a book about faith. It's also sad, because it had been interesting and engaging in the beginning. The plot is too improbable, though. Instead of religious terrorism, the story is about atheist terrorism! Now this is unlikely, but it's possible, and I applaud the author for taking a different tack, but the more I read of the novel, the more it felt like there was an agenda here other than telling a story, with the author not-so-subtly sniping at atheists every few pages. The villain was such an absurd caricature that he was just not credible, and he doesn't talk like any atheist I'm familiar with.
The story begins with a series of terrorist attacks on religious locations using a virus which, despite our being repeatedly told is horrific and deadly, never actually does any real harm because the hero rushes in and inevitably stops the attack at the eleventh hour. It was a bit too much, and tedious in how repetitive it became.
The trope of a retired veteran being recalled to the intelligence services to combat the threat is way overdone in stories these days. If you're going that route, you need to have a very good reason why an outsider has to be brought back in; that is, why the resources they have at the CIA (in this case) are insufficient, yet no real reason was offered here.
The "hero"'s name is Robin Fox, no doubt named after Robin Lane Fox, a well-known atheist and academic, and he almost immediately begins globe-trotting. Instead of keeping authorities informed of the threat and letting them handle it, he abandons all communication at the end, and personally takes charge, actually physically chasing terrorists and bringing them to book, so he was something of a one-trick pony, and it felt far too incredible that he was the only one who could do this: see the threat, spot the interloper, and defuse it at the last minute. Once or twice maybe, but every single time, and single-handed? It didn't work for me because it was so unrealistic.
The method of the attacks in each case was so improbably contrived that it was not only unlikely to succeed, but it was contrived in a way which was tailor-made for Fox to defeat it. He was always in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to foil the attack.
In one case, the method was to use linseed oil to make a garment erupt in flames, and then to have the nearby fire extinguisher 'impregnated' with the virus, so it was spread as someone tried to put out the flames. This was so absurd that I actually laughed. I agree that linseed oil is dangerous in a pile of soaked rags, but to have it in the material of a garment is not likely to have the same effect, and the smell would be highly noticeable. No one would put on a garment which smelled badly of putty!
And why go to all that trouble? Too much can go wrong. If the practice was to use linseed oil (also known as flax seed oil, FYI) to polish the pews, which seemed a bit of a stretch, then why not simply put the virus in that, or spray it from the gallery during the service? It made no sense to me to set it up in such a risky and Heath Robinson fashion, and it made me feel like the author had become so enwrapped in presenting a "cool scenario" that he failed to look critically and objectively at what he was writing. This took me right out of the story.
There was too much trope and stereotyping in the novel, which ultimately defeated the 'off the beaten track' approach which I'd initially admired and rooted for. For example, we get an Irish MI5 officer whose name is Liam Donovan. He had a, wait for it, red beard, and red hair. This could not have been more of a condescending cliché if he'd been named Paddy O'Brien, had worn shoes with curling toes, a green felt hat, and carried a shillelagh.
The atheist terrorists leave a trail of clues to their next attacks like this is a Nancy Drew story. These clues are ones which only Robin Goodfellow can solve of course, and each clue consistently got him there in time to save the day. Why would a terrorist leave clues? There's a halfhearted attempt to explain it as a conceit on the part of the obsessively posing and monologuing terrorist leader, but it failed. I don't have a problem with the good guys doing the footwork and making the breaks for themselves, but to have neat clues laid out, Dan Brown style, and have the hero swoop in and solve them all so effortlessly and in the nick of time, was too much to swallow.
The author has the atheists worshiping at the altar of Charles Darwin, but no atheist does that, and all of the atheists I've encountered understand evolution very well. They would never talk of it as the Nazis did, for example, as winnowing out the weak links to make the race stronger, in the way that the over-the-top villain mindlessly monologues about.
As a point of order, it's the creationists who slander Darwin by misrepresenting what he said and who make endless attempts at character assassination on him, like if they discredit him, then the Theory of Evolution fails. Atheists are not that stupid and never would misrepresent his work. Plus they have better things to do with their time!
Atheism isn't about a belief system or about worshiping at the altar of the sciences; it's simply a lack of belief due to a lack of viable evidence, and that's all there is to it. Yes, there are some atheist campaigners like Richard Dawkins, but most of us don't care about religion enough to waste much time even thinking about it; we're too busy getting on with our lives, content to let religion fail under its own unsupportable weight.
Yes, we find it foolish, and often in equal parts amusing and annoying, but that's about it. Yes, if it tries to encroach on our rights or control our lives we will fight back (but not with bombs or viruses!). Other than that we really don't care if people want to believe in fairy tales. It's their choice.
So this book felt like it misrepresented atheists, but that wasn't the worst fault by any means. I would have bought into the plot of atheist terrorists if they hadn't been so painfully paper-thin and caricatured. That, the boring and poorly plotted story, along with an improbable terrorist and an even more absurd protagonist who was so self-righteous and infallible that it left no possibility of suspense for the reader at all, were what brought this down for me.
I began skimming this novel around page 270 (out of some 330 pages) and I quit at around page 300 when it devolved even more absurdly into secret passageways and booby traps. I wish the author all the best in his career, but I cannot recommend this novel.