Journals of the Plague Years
Reviewed by Carl Cipra
By Norman Spinrad
Rating: none given
Norman Spinrad is one of my favorite authors; I've enjoyed every novel
of his that I've read. The mere mention of some of the titles - Bug
Jack Baron, Child of Fortune, Deus X, The Iron Dream,
Little Heroes, Russian Spring - brings back memories of some
really great reading experiences!
And now there's Journals of the Plague Years; and I can summarize
my feelings about this one by saying: Wow! This is vintage Spinrad, writing
at his controversial, visionary, "in your face" best! It's a science-fictional
study of life in "The Plague Years," the era when AIDS has run rampant:
a world of quarantined cities, HIV-status ID cards, safe-sex machines,
Sex Police, and the outlawing of old-fashioned lovemaking (dubbed "meat-sex"
in the novel). But what about a cure, you ask? Oh, there was one;
a vaccine was developed. "But [in the words of the novel's Introduction]
the organism mutated under this evolutionary pressure and a new strain
swept the world. A new vaccine was developed, but the virus mutated again.
Eventually, the succession of vaccines selected for mutability itself;
and the Plague virus proliferated into dozens of strains."
Journals recounts the intertwined stories of four key individuals
during those horrific years. John David is one of the thousands of infected
members of the American Foreign Legion ("aka the Army of the Living Dead")
- pumped up on the latest vaccines, palliatives, and drugs and sent to
fight "an endless imperialistic war against the whole Third World" until
the Legion's revolt during the Baja California campaign. Walter T. Bigelow
is possibly the most powerful man in the United States, head of the far-reaching
Federal Quarantine Agency and its enforcement arm, the Sex Police. He's
also a Born Again Christian who has been fighting the Devil and the Devil-spawned
Plague (as well as his own homosexual urges) for decades. Dr. Richard Bruno
is a brilliant scientist, a genetic synthesizer for a corporation which
designs Plague vaccines - and now he's Got It (i.e. he's infected).
He's just developed an absolute cure for the Plague (in all its
mutations). Will he be Quarantined before he can save the world? Or will
he be killed as a threat to the multi-billion-dollar vaccine industry and
the powerful FQA? And then there's Linda Lewin: infected at 18 by a lying
boyfriend, she joins the California underground and becomes Our Lady of
the Living Dead, the head of a new religion which seeks a cure to the Plague
through carnal abandon. It's an incredible mix! In the introductory words
of a historian from the future looking back on the events of the novel:
"...what we must remember if we are to keep our perspective as we read
these journals of the Plague Years is that the people who wrote them, indeed
the entire population of what was then the United States of America, and
most of the world, were, by our standards, all quite mad."
Spinrad always generates controversy with his works; and Journals
of the Plague Years is no exception. The novel's new Afterword tells
the tale. Spinrad wrote Journals in 1987 but was unable to find
a publisher for it because "the subject was too frightening." When his
editors found they couldn't dissuade him from writing it anyway, they warned
him to at least keep the word AIDS out of it. Hence, "the Plague." A slightly
shorter version of the story first saw publication in 1988 in Full Spectrum,
a critically-acclaimed (but not widely-read) anthology of speculative fiction.
It wasn't until September, 1995, that Journals became "viable in
book form because the matters that it deals with have, alas, become more
central to our lives than ever they were in 1987....so central that denial
is no longer a viable psychic option."
Spinrad is an incredible writer. This is an incredible book. It certainly
made me re-think some of the issues and events of our own "Plague Years."