Thursday, April 30, 2009

Streams of Babel by Carol Plum-Ucci

Main characters: An ensemble cast, including American teens Cora, Scott, Owen and Rain, Pakistani Shahzad, and Korean immigrant Tyler Ping
Location: mostly New Jersey but also a small village in Pakistan
Time period: Spring 2002
Genre: YA Fiction, Suspense, Thriller, Espionage

I started this book in a "now" mind-set and as such it seemed especially timely given the current swine flu concerns. It took me a little while to pay attention to the date headings on each chapter and realize that it is set in 2002, just a few months after the Towers fell. It is a 2008 release, and I wonder if the author started it in 2002 but it has taken this long to be released or if it was a conscious decision to set it in the recent past, when concerns about terrorism were still fresh and raw.

In a suburban town in New Jersey called Trinity Hills, two women living on the same street die of brain aneurysms within a 24 hour period. Their teen-aged children along with another neighbor display symptoms that seem like the flu and yet are not the flu. Halfway across the world, a teenage computer genius working in his uncle's internet cafe eavesdrops on terrorists in chat rooms and reports to US Intelligence what he learns--that someone has mutated a virus into something undetectable and incurable, and it has been released into the water supply in such a way as to affect only a five-block section of a place code-named Colony One.

The story is told from multiple POVs, through the voices of the six teenagers caught up in events far beyond them. This is a very effective way to tell the story, since no one character has the whole story--something that Shahzad finds increasingly frustrating and causes him to take serious risks. I really liked this narration technique in the first half of the book as you get to know the four neighbors through their own eyes and as others see them. Cora is ashamed of her morphine-addicted mother who abandoned her as a child and only came home a few years ago. Believing herself unloved, she has kept to herself, rigid against any hurt. The others, especially the boys, see her as beautiful but aloof, somehow above them all. Owen thinks of himself as selfish and moody; his mother and brother see him as selfless, giving, and possibly destined for a religious life. Scott, as a paramedic, sees their growing illness and tries to isolate them from the healthy which allows them, the ill, to come together and form the bonds of friendship.

Are teenaged computer geniuses in danger of becoming a cliche? I'm thinking of some recent books I've read--Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Icecore by Matt Whyman, Rash by Peter Hautman--and they all feature computer geniuses/hackers. This book has two--Shahzad and Tyler. They worked well in this story, and I loved the line (repeated a few times) "Computers have blurred the line between child and adult, because in the land of computers, children are the men, and the men are the children." Who hasn't felt that way sometimes?

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