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I read this sometime in 2003 or 2004. It was a modern novel, certainly younger than 20 years old at the time.

One of the main characters is a paralyzed scientist (palsy, I think) who invents "meat trees" or anencephalic cows that have no brainstem. These are quickly banned because of how philosophically/politically unsettling they are. But it establishes him as some sort of biology/genetics/etc genius.

There is another scientist (also a main character) who finds a Neanderthal corpse well preserved in the Himalayas (he's probably the protagonist).

This gets weirder. Early in the story some billionaire collector buys a Christian relic (a finger bone of a saint, maybe?) stored in a bejeweled container. The container is designed to destroy the relic if it is opened incorrectly (some sort of puzzle box). He strives to open it, and a plague is released. This plague causes (other than death) a victim's skin to become translucent to the point that you can see their internal organs in the final stage.

The disease quickly spreads, no vaccine is ever developed, though tests are finally developed such that the United States is able to (initially) keep it out of our mainland (haha, that is perhaps the most absurd part of this absurdly bad novel).

The first scientist I mentioned eventually discovers some rapid cloning process. Not only can you clone nearly anything, but:

  1. The clones can be matured to adult bodies rather quickly (weeks, months maybe, not years).
  2. The clones have some sort of memory of their former life. This is hinted to be genetic, but no proper explanation is ever given.
  3. The neanderthal is cloned at some point, but it's mostly a throwaway plot point.

The other scientist discovers (before the plague makes it impossible to continue) some tomb in Israel or perhaps Palestine with hundreds of distinct human remains.

These too are cloned.

One of them is believed to be Jesus Christ. Though, when asked if he is the Messiah, he enigmatically says something to the effect of "there were many messiahs back then", neither confirming nor denying.

The country falls apart, with only a few research sites still uninfected. A nuclear weapon is detonated to kill some of the infected who have camped out near the research site. Military commanders move everyone to some salt mine prepared for human habitation, intending to seal it up from the inside for a few decades to wait it out. The people transferred have their belongings confiscated, incinerated, and live without personal possessions (but not for long). The paralyzed scientist has cloned himself, the clone isn't paralyzed, but is even more psychotic than the original. He has made an incision in his leg, put a glass vial sample of the plague into it, and sutured it up.

When he's sent to the underground facility, he carefully removes the sample, and infects everyone.

Meanwhile, the other scientist, his love interest, and maybe-Jesus (plus a few dozen others) who escaped the roundup and forced relocation are wandering around, hoping to develop a vaccine from the clones who may have been exposed to an ancient strain of the disease which was less lethal (why would the clones still be immune, shouldn't only the originals long dead have the immunity??!?!).

I do not remember a title, author, and Google isn't helping despite the fact that I have quite a few search strings that should zero in on this instantly.

I do not recommend this book. In retrospect it's not science fiction at all, but thinly veiled Christian apocalyptic fantasy.

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    One of the main characters is a paralyzed scientist (palsy, I think) who invents "meat trees" or anacephalic cows that have no brainstem..... Aw come on! Why not call it an hambush?
    – Danny Mc G
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 6:39
  • 1
    John O, thanks for bringing this to my attention. A very valuable feature of this site, obscurish book which are nonetheless memorable. It seems to me I have read more than one book of this flavor but sounds like author came up with some good new ideas.
    – releseabe
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 8:56
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    Missed opportunity: One of them is believed to be Jesus Christ. Though, when asked if he is the Messiah, he enigmatically says, "No, I'm a very naughty boy!"
    – TripeHound
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 15:55
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    Gee whiz, JohnO, it's hard to understand how you can be so critical of this book when I see below that it has a front-cover endorsement by none other than Dan Brown. 🤣
    – Kyralessa
    Commented Jul 27, 2021 at 18:24

2 Answers 2

25

Year Zero by Jeff Long.

Year Zero

The scientist is Edward Cavendish:

The occassion of the first Congressional hearing had been Cavendish’s infamous “meat tree.” Funded by Burger King, working in a private lab in Nebraska, Cavendish had conjured up a herd of headless cows. As a matter of fact, Cavendish’s cows did have heads, but genetically stripped to the basics, a tiny bone casing with a hole for breathing and one for tube feeding. He’d deleted eyes, ears, jaws, and horns, anything superfluous to rudimentary existence. Technically each animal had a brain. The nubbin of a brain stem ensured that the lungs respirated and the food digested.

The relic is:

Together they carefully lifted out a fourteen-inch silver and gold cross with a hollow interior. Nikos sprayed off the dust with an aerosol can for cleaning camera lenses, then lay the cross on a white foam sheet. “It comes from a Serb church in Kosovo looted by the KLA. Their asking price was $1.8 million U.S. My agent countered with $125,000 and they grabbed it. They had no idea its real worth. I didn’t either.”

And it is a puzzle box:

Using jeweler’s tools, Nikos touched the cross in various places. He pressed gems studding the front as if they were doorbells. “The very old ones sometimes have secret lock mechanisms, hideaways, even false capsules,” he explained. “I’ve learned the hard way. My clumsiness destroyed several of the oldest relics. One must be patient and try to think like the puzzle maker. It is a game. Him against us.”

The disease is described as:

“No, not flu,” said Monique. “It is a disease like man has never known. You become infected and soon grow blind. That is the first phase. The color leaves your eyes.”

That was why she had wanted to see his eyes.

“Later, your skin becomes transparent. You grow into an apparition. The effect is quite beautiful,” she said. “In the final hours, the human heart is bared for all to see.”

I found the book in the disorganised mess that is my SF collection, but I must admit I don't remember reading it. It's quite possible I got it in a bulk purchase and have never read it. Anyhow, if you want anything else checking let me know and I can find it in the book.

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    I am adding this to my library list!
    – ArlettaS
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 12:13
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Pretty sure this is Year Zero (2002) by Jeff Long.

The Christian relic, the plague, and the clones -- one of which claims to be Jesus Christ -- are all mentioned in the Goodreads synopsis:

An archaeological manhunt is raging in the holy land -- a hunt for the historical Jesus. For Nathan Lee Swift, a young American field researcher and expectant father, the line between noble discovery and the plunder of ruins is sacred -- until the night he crosses it. At a Roman landfill beneath the crucifixion grounds known as Golgotha, Nathan Lee yields to his professor's greed and turns common grave robber. His world -- his unborn daughter -- seems lost to him.

Hundreds of miles away, on the remote Greek island of Corfu, a wealthy collector pries open his latest black-market purchase -- a fourteen-inch holy relic containing a vial of blood dating back to the first century -- and unleashes a two-thousand-year-old plague. As the pandemic explodes from the Mediterranean basin and threatens to devour humankind, Nathan Lee gets a chance at redemption. He embarks on an Odyssean journey back to the United States to find his family.

Skirting the edges of the world, Nathan Lee's path finally leads him to New Mexico, where the greatest minds of science have converged at Los Alamos to find a vaccine. There Nathan Lee meets Miranda Abbot, a nineteen-year-old prodigy. As the cure continues to elude them, Miranda launches a desperate final strategy: the use of human lab rats cloned from the year zero. Nathan Lee, the thief of bones, comes face-to-face with men made from the very relics he looted, one of whom claims to be Jesus Christ, but may also be Patient Zero.

Combining the scientific precision of The Andromeda Strain with the intensity of classic adventure epics, Jeff Long takes readers on a riveting voyage through the rubble of earthquake-torn Jerusalem, the serenity of the high Himalayas, and the eerie sanctuary of Los Alamos. With Long's characteristic originality, Year Zero races against the apocalyptic clock, creating a maze of twists, astonishing atmosphere, and the clash of science and faith.

The paralysed scientist you referred to is likely Edward Cavendish:

They reached an empty parking lot in front of a newly built structure. ALPHA LABORATORY, read a sigh. The bus stopped. A solitary, twisted figure awaited them in a wheelchair. He looked like a broken fighter pilot, his wheelchair a veritable cockpit bristling with gadgets, joysticks, and a built-in computer terminal.

"Cavendish," one of the passengers hissed.

Someone said, "The dark prince."

He looked much the way Abbot remembered him at the commission hearings in Washington two and three years ago. No buttons: a turtleneck. Penny loafers. The small chin shaved clean.

He invented "meat trees," genetically engineered, headless cows which were quickly banned by the US Congress:

Until then, no one had ever heard of Edward Cavendish. That changed. Skirting the academic publishing process, he'd released the story directly to the public. His photos had shocked the world. Meat trees, he'd dubbed his creations. He offered a variety of uses and excuses for them. The animals would provide a cheap protein source for the Third World. Housed in factories, they would save the rainforest and return America's grazing lands to the buffalo. And since his mutant cattle were born into a state of coma, he pointed out, they felt no pain at "harvest." They had no consciousness, no "animal soul," meaning even vegans could eat them without qualm.

The pundits quickly jumped on the underlying issue. If one could create headless cows for harvest, why not headless humans for organ transplants? For a few horrified weeks, Cavendish had dominated international attention, even edging out the latest supertyphoons in Bangladesh and car bombings in Quebec. The supermarket tabloids whipped public hysteria into a froth. Everyone had an opinion, from cowboys predicting the end of family farms to bishops and philosophers damning his twist on nature. All in all, the incident had been a blod, clumsy coming-out party for himself, a one-man show. Congress quickly passed a law against meat trees. But that wasn't the end of Cavendish.

He also cloned a neanderthal:

The second time Abbot met him had been after the Neandertal incident. Using DNA from a frozen dental nerve in a preserved mandible, and "borrowing" a Jersey milk cow for the womb, he had cloned a Neandertal infant. Again, his creation shocked the world, and carried an underlying twist. Since H. neandertalis was by the strictest definition not H. sapiens, Cavendish had managed to break the taboo against human cloning without technically breaking it. The psychological barrier was crossed. Human cloning had arrived.

One of the human clones in the story was named Ben. He was asked if he'd seen the Messiah in Golgotha. He said he had, but also stated that there were "many messiahs":

Izzy spoke. "Did you know a man they called the m-shee-haa?" Nathan Lee was surprised by the abrupt question, by his solemnity. Then he realized Izzy was setting the man up.

"Yes." Ben answered.

"You saw him?"

"There were many messiahs."

Izzy laughed with relief. Ben did not look offended. To the contrary, he seemed amused by Izzy's amusement.

You can view a preview of the book here.

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    I don’t know why, but everything else just had me chuckling at how silly this all was. Clones instantly growing to adulthood with memories of their past lives? That’s wacky fun. But, m-shee-haa when it should be m-shee-khaa? That’s just lazy.
    – Davislor
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 23:24
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    khaa not akh ??
    – Jasen
    Commented Jul 25, 2021 at 6:51

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