By Lisabet Sarai
The year is 2045. The sexually-transmitted Plague that killed a third of the U.S. population and left half the survivors sterile has been under control for more than seven years, but the country is still suffering. American technology, already on the decline before the disaster, has fallen further behind the competition from India, Brazil, and other powerhouse economies. People huddle in the deteriorating cities on both coasts; the center of the country belongs to bandits and the survivalist communities who saw the crash coming. The birthrate continues to drop, despite government propaganda and the availability of fertility boosting drugs. Scarred by memories of horrible death and devastating riots, and still afraid of residual contagion, people prefer the simulated sexual experience provided by EyePorn to the real thing.
The Guardians of American Greatness blame the crisis on homosexuals. The Plague first appeared in the gay community, and gay men were the first to die. When existing institutions collapsed, the Guardians stepped in to provide order. They rounded up every man whose profile revealed the homogene, imprisoning the captives in remote quarantine camps patrolled by robot wardens and surrounded by moats of toxic waste. At a time when the mobs were screaming for gay blood, the Guardians called the quarantine solution humane. Now people barely remember the existence of the incarcerated gays, though homosexual activity is still a capital crime.
Twenty four year old Dylan Moore has spent nearly a third of his life in desolate Malheur Camp, in the barren reaches of eastern Oregon. He's determined to escape or die in the attempt. A genius with electronics, Dylan manages to subvert the prison security systems and catch the attention of one of the two human guards in the facility, Rafe Cowell. Rafe is an ex-gang member, forced to work at Malheur as an alternative to a jail sentence. Although he's H-negative, Rafe finds Dylan disturbingly attractive and ultimately agrees to help him flee.
When Dylan's clever plans fall apart, the two men both end up as fugitives. They make their way to the partially ruined city of Sanfran, hoping to emigrate to Brazil or Thailand or some other gay-friendly country. However, they become entangled with the underground Queer Resistance as well as the ambitious city mayor, darling of the Guardians, who has his own private agenda.
This is the world of Quarantine, my M/M erotic romance novel due out in July. It's not so different from our own, and that's very deliberate. It's only a small step from the virulent anti-gay rhetoric one encounters in the U.S. media to a future that includes places like Malheur Camp. That may seem far-fetched, a gross violation of the freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, but we've seen those guarantees savaged before in a crisis or emergency. Remember the American citizens of Japanese descent confined to internment camps during World War II? My scenario is not nearly as unthinkable as one would like to believe.
There are other aspects of my dystopia that are far too plausible for comfort. In Rafe's and Dylan's world, many citizens are not literate. Pictures and symbols have begun to replace text on public signs. Huge video screens loom over the city buildings, displaying non-stop images of peace and plenty. The Guardians deliberately cultivate nostalgia for the nineteen fifties, supposedly America's golden age of prosperity and power. Pictures of beloved "Uncle Ike" hang in every public place.
Surveillance devices are everywhere. A microchip buried under the skin of every individual encodes his or her identity and genetic profile. Robotic soldiers prowl the sidewalks, transmitting data back to Guardian headquarters. The only obstacle to complete control of the population is the unreliability of American-made technology.
It took me more than a year to finish Quarantine. I lost confidence about half way through and stopped writing, convinced that my vision of the future was simply too ordinary and obvious to be compelling. There are no starships in this book, no nanotechnology, no cyber-implants that can enhance your intelligence. The most sophisticated invention I describe is the EyePorn pod, a virtual sex device that interfaces with the limbic system and injects genetically tailored hormones into the user's bloodstream. Not too original - I wouldn't be surprised to see something like this available within five years.
I want to thank Garce for helping me get through that bad spell. His "muddling" was invaluable. It also helped to remind myself that I was writing erotic romance first - that the scifi aspect was perhaps less important than the relationship between the protagonists. In any case, Quarantine definitely falls into the "soft" category of science fiction. I'm mostly concerned with societal attitudes - and how they can be manipulated - in particular, attitudes about sexuality. A friend recently compared Quarantine to The Handmaid's Tale, and I think that's apt. Like Margaret Atwood's heroine, Dylan and Rafe are victims of a hypocritical system that demonizes their natural urges.
Here's an unedited excerpt from the book. Dylan and Rafe have made it to SanFran, and have been told to seek out the head of QR in the Castro exclusion zone - the former center of gay culture, now supposedly contaminated with Plague prions.
As they approached the corner of Market and Dolores, a wall of gray steel slats, nearly two stories high, rose in front of them. Red-lettered signs plastered the hoarding: "Contaminated Area. Extreme danger. Do not enter." plus scowling skull and crossbones icons for those citizens who couldn't read. The official notices were augmented by coarser, more casual notices: "Die fags!" and "Kill the queers". Dylan was used to such sentiments, but Rafe's body stiffened as they approached the barrier.
The fence ran left along the west side of Dolores as far as they could see. Meanwhile, it stretched for blocks along Market. It appeared at first to be impenetrable, but at Castro there was a closed gate, wide enough for a bulldozer. Dylan was surprised to find that the entry was bolted but not locked and there no guards. He scanned the power poles and neighbouring buildings. He didn't see any cameras, though that meant little.
Market Street was momentarily empty of both people and vehicles. "This is our chance," he told his companion in a loud whisper. "Now!" He slipped the bolt and cracked open the door.
"Wait—maybe we shouldn't—the Plague..." Rafe hung back as Dylan stepped partway inside.
"Come on!" Dylan hooked Rafe's upper arm and yanked him into the shadows on the other side of the door. Rafe stumbled on a heap of debris. Dylan steadied him. Nervous sweat beaded the black man's brow.
Sympathy tightened Dylan's chest. Poor Rafe. Despite his gang background, he wasn't used to being hunted. Plus he still believed the Guardians' propaganda. Dylan pulled off his mask, stuffing it into his back pocket, then moved to do the same with Rafe's.
"No!" The ex-guard backed away. "I'll keep it on."
"Don't be silly," Dylan laughed, snatching the mask away and planting a kiss on Rafe's mouth. He felt his lover relax a bit. "I'm sure we're being watched in here. We need to show who we are, so they know they can trust us." He pushed the hood back, exposing Rafe's scowling face.
"But the Plague..."
"Artemis said it was safe, that the disease has died out. Don't you believe her?"
"Um—I'm not sure..."
"Well, I do. She's one smart lady. I think the Plague is the least of our worries." He held out his hand to his hesitant partner. "It'll be okay, Rafe. As long as we're together, we're okay."
Rafe grunted in reply, but he allowed Dylan to lead him deeper into the exclusion zone.
The devastation was more extensive than anything they'd seen so far. The streets were pocked with grenade craters and lined with heaps of charred rubble that had once been buildings. In some places it was difficult to walk. They trudged uphill, dodging piles of debris, scanning for any signs of life. It was eerily silent. The babble from the vidscreens didn't seem to penetrate here.
Dylan checked the map, then turned left onto a narrower street. Half-demolished wooden structures leaned at crazy angles around them. "This should be Church," he told Rafe as they took a right. "And that should be Wilde Baths."
He pointed to a three story, stucco building across the road. The roof had caved in on the left, but the right side of the edifice appeared to be intact. Splintered boards shuttered the windows. Weeds sprouted on the sills. Despite its dodgy appearance, however, Wilde Baths had a very solid-looking front door.
Dylan knocked, three long, two short, one long, the way Artemis had instructed. Sixty seconds went by. No one answered. The buzz of a helicopter sounded overhead. His heart slammed against his ribs. Could Artemis have betrayed them?
As though sensing his unease, Rafe put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. Dylan took a deep breath and knocked again.
Hinges creaked and the door opened an inch or two. "Yeah?" The unseen man sounded annoyed, even angry.
"We're friends of Oscar," Dylan answered with the pass phrase. "Artemis sent us. We need to talk to Hammer."
The gap widened another few inches. A slender man with a trim goatee glared at them. "Hammer's not here now."
"Can we come in? Wait for him?" Rafe interjected. The engine noise grew louder. "It's not safe for us out here."
The man's eyes flicked over them, weighing the risks. Finally he nodded. "Okay." Stepping back, he let them enter, then bolted the door behind them. "Here." He handed each of them a folded, dingy-looking towel and a key, then pointed down a dimly lit corridor. "Locker room's at the end of the hall. Baths are in the basement, massage on the second floor. I'll come find you when he gets back." Dylan didn't expect the grin that twitched at the man's thin mouth. "Have fun."
"Wait a minute..." Rafe tried to return the towel.
Dylan grabbed his hand and pulled him down the hall. "Thanks," he called back. "We really appreciate it."
Rafe struggled to extricate his hand from Dylan's grip. "Stop," he hissed. "No way I'm getting naked in front of a bunch of queers."
"Oh really? Do you want to go back outside, then? Well, go ahead." Dylan was suddenly furious. How could he love such a damned homophobe? "Maybe that copter wasn't looking for us after all. Anyway, you're not queer. You don't have to worry. You can explain it all. How you were tricked into helping some Plague-infected perv escape quarantine. It wasn't your fault, was it? Sneaky little fag must have drugged you or something. You're straight as Uncle Ike, right?"
Quarantine is scheduled for release some time in July. Don't worry - I'll let you know when as soon as I hear!