My interest, besides the whole SF/plague/dystopia thing, is that I like systems. Most disasters don't come from single point failures, but cascades of multiple failures. Ebola may be deadly, but the total numbers of cases ever worldwide is on the order of 2000. Millions died from the 1918 flu pandemic, but not the entire world. You need things to be worse.
Isolation / Denise R. Stephenson. Minneapolis MN: Mill City Press, 2014.
Ever wonder how things get so fucked up that you end up with the system in THX-1138, Logan's Run, The Matrix, Divergent, The Hunger Games -- or even a whole crop of new TV shows where the government doesn't seem to be on our side as in The Lottery and probably Extant, The Last Ship and The Strain? Isolation eschews the usual narrative point of view by using a varied and changing cast of characters, including one written in first person. It shouldn't work, except that this takes a wide view of a deepening disaster over a long period of time. Indeed, in the third act Isolation is much more traditional, but by then we are thinking more globally.
In Isolation we are up against waging war with deadly bacteria. But it's not one thing. It's C-DIFF, E coli, staph and MRSA, Lysteria, salmonella and on and on. It's genetic leakage and catastrophic contamination from GMO crops. It's antibiotic and antibacterial madness run amuck, plus some viruses like H1N1. It's a food supply we can't trust. And we are losing.
If you are a germophobe, a hypochondriac and/or have major league OCD, I don't know if this book would weird you totally out or satisfyingly confirm your worst fears. Consider this a friendly warning. For myself, it's a little disturbing to read when I am 16 months into fighting a bacterial infection and had to deal with hand sanitizers and sterile equipment to do my own IVs at home. I love to read dystopian stories -- I have no enthusiasm for living one.
Because this is a story of multiple generations, there's a nice job of recognizing something that Mrs. Dr. Phil and I have talked about a lot -- that our parents and grandparents lived through the Depression, World Wars, even the terrible influenza epidemic. Their habits were laid down by hard conditions and none of them wanted to repeat these. Habits of various age cohorts are a major factor here. Indeed, the tag line on the cover is, "Habits learned early are habits for life."
By taking multiple paths and staying away from the trap of the one note novel plot, Stephenson sets the table for each escalation. You don't get to the end directly from the beginning, but once the path is traced, you can believe in it and not get thrown of the story. Up to a point.
And by the time we get to Isolation as a condition, it is easy to think that the human race is on its way out. I was anticipating that everyone would give up, or they'd discover that it was okay, or there was one last massive failure and it would be another On The Beach. We don't get that. Mrs. Dr. Phil said that in a way, Isolation seems like José Saramago's Blindness, but without the "happy ending". What would you do?
Yet, this is not a comprehensive view of society and the human race failing. Clearly someone is still doing manufacturing and distribution. But what we see are fragmented and the triage is disturbing.
As far as the writing goes, it is my impression that this is a self-published work. Not bad. I particularly like (1) the inclusion of articles from various sources of varying veracity and (2) the development of all sorts of jargon as the crisis deepens. Though I know some people hate the former -- much like some hate what I think is one of Gateway's greatest features, the ancillary sidebars. As for the latter, sometimes I find that terms seem too universally used by all cohorts -- real people exhibit more variability and have more than one way to say things, with slang and tech terms morphing quickly in the wild. Ten years ago no one would have talked about a selfie -- it was just a self-portrait. And I was annoyed by the overuse of the word "lackey", in everything from government use, articles and everyday language across the board. This did keep throwing me out of the story.
As for the plot, I was sure the ending would mirror the beginning. That it did not made it all seem more hopeless. Combined with many real world situations, here ramped way up, I find the story more compelling than its flaws, and Isolation will be the first self-published novel on this Fall's science literacy booklist for my students.
Available via Amazon and elsewhere.