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Journals of the Plague Years by Norman…

Journals of the Plague Years (1995)

by Norman Spinrad

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Hum...well, it was readable--interesting idea, I s'pose, with AIDs as the modern plague, and the concept is good, there's action, the (ironically) 'usual' disparate allies thrown together by some common cause/enemy to save the day in the 11th hour...all that. As I finished reading, for a bit I felt like it was maybe 4-star material...then, as the climactic ending, the warm fuzzies of all's-well-that-ends-well, started to fade from immediate memory, it slid down to more of a solid 3.

But there are some major issues that, on reflection, knock this book down to a 2, maybe a high 2 but still a 2, in my estimation.

First off, there's the problem faced by many--most, really--sci-fi/dystopian/futuristic novels written years ago (1988, in this case), that, after a certain future date, when the predictions and projections have not come to pass as imagined (though, obviously, taking events/trends of the present and imagining their progression to an extreme future situation is a time-honored, and effective, device in s/f), the action loses immediacy and force, becoming more of a commentary on certain themes or musing on what might have happened rather than a possible reality. Not that the world that Spinrad writes of is completely irrelevant to the world of 1988 or of 2014--. But in 1988 AIDs was, it seems, a greater source of uncertainty, and thus fear, than today (not to say we're totally cool with it now, but at least me know more) making it an effective topic for speculative fiction, plenty of what-ifs to play with. But an introduction from someone who lives on the Moon in 2143 seems a bit much, unnecessary--and surely there are better places to aim for than that, if we're going to leave Earth. (Like Mars, I guess?)

Anyway, okay, that's not my main problem. One of the obvious, unavoidable weaknesses of speculative fiction, unless it is extrapolating only tentatively from well-established facts--which is rarely very exciting, so what's the point then--is that it will eventually be disproved by actual events, or if the predictions are fairly accurate, they will go from possibility to mere history, which is interesting in its own right but has lost the element of...suspense, you might say. But that's just how this genre works, and so to some extent you have to look past whether the prophecy was or seems likely to be correct given present knowledge, and just appreciate the ideas, the reflections of society and humanity, the author's imagination, and its significance/value/whatever at the time it was written.

So, yeah. My main problems were more author/book specific. So, all spoilers from here, basically. Firstly, the part where Dr.Richard Bruno, having infected himself with the cure for the virus (only concocted after he cheated on his wife with an supposedly uninfected stranger and got HIV himself), first off gives this "dreadnaught" to his son (no, no, it's okay, he does it via a HIV-positive prostitute, thereby curing her, and then she has sex with the son to transmit the immunity). Then, when the Sex Police pick up the son for the second time with the certainty he's had sex with black-carders and is surely infected, Dr. B drunkenly spills the whole story to his wife, who understandably decides he's a raving, disease-riddled lunatic and declines to have unprotected sex with her. He's running short on time--and sobriety--so "If there could be such a thing as loving rape, now was the time for it." Yup. This is definitely the best way to demonstrate his sanity and the fact that he's found a cure. So...yup. He rapes her, "knowing I was doing the right thing even as she fought...convinced that she was fighting to keep herself from certain infection with the Plague. ...I loathed myself...even as I knew full well that it was ultimately right. And left her there sobbing while I reeled off into the night to retrieve Tod from the SP."

So, yeah, I have a problem with rape, especially when explained on the grounds of "the end justifies the means." Y'know, he had no choice, it was for her own good. Which...well, kind of, but...no, not really. After all, he has to forcibly kidnap her anyway to bring her with to the SF Quarantine Zone, because apparently his rape-strategy didn't inspire her trust. But it's all right, he never has to deal with the seriously messy problem of patching things up with his wife and son, as both conveniently drown on the way to the SFQZ. Problem solved.

Then there's the Bible-thumping, God-fearing, ignorant and dogmatic and not terribly intelligent President of the U.S., who is in his mind fighting a personal battle against Satan and his forces of evil. Ohmyshit. But then at the end he's convinced by the serial rapist he sent to bring back Dr. B and ex(?)-prostitute Linda Lewin that they've actually got it handled, the scientists were lying about the dreadnaught's actual purpose, and he can cancel that atomic bombing.

So yeah, misogyny and 2-D characterization/character about-faces aside...not too bad a read. It's engaging, and I got to the end before the major judgment kicked in. ( )
  -sunny- | Jul 15, 2014 |
Norman Spinrad has written some disturbing books. Don’t get me wrong – great books. But some books that have really bothered me. (I read The Iron Dream – a science fiction book he created that is supposedly written by Hitler – in college and, while recognizing it is an incredible piece of writing, have been unable to get up the gumption/nerve to re-read it.) Journals of the Plague Years is right in there with the good but disturbing.

Obviously written with the AIDS epidemic in mind (Spinrad says as much in the afterward), the population is being destroyed by a sexually transmitted disease. The solutions to this problem include quarantine areas (San Francisco is the threat to anyone who is found to carry the disease), card-carrying evidence of purity (or, conversely, “the black card”), sex machines, and the Sex Police. The lives of four people are followed through their diary entries – a soldier who has the plague and is wreaking havoc on a path to his death, the man charged by the government to keep us all safe, a woman who feels that sharing the plague may be the solution, and a scientist who has actually found a cure.

In the Afterward, Spinrad admits that this was originally meant as a 20-page treatment for a full novel. But the treatment would not be contained, and this 100+ page more than novelette but less than novel is the result. While it is does contain all it needs, it does still feel like fleshing it out would not have been a bad idea.

But, it is too easy to dismiss this work because of its length. Too short or not, it is still incredibly disturbing. Yet, disturbing in an effective way that makes us take a second look at our reactions to AIDS, drugs, religion, and the sexual revolution (if I can use an old 60s term for a new situation.)

Previous to publication as a separate novel, this piece has been included in various collections including reprints in foreign languages, and has been used in AIDS education programs. It has become an “important” piece. But more to the point, it is an excellent example of an excellent author’s good work. It will be tough for me to read again. It is graphic, and it is scary. But I am glad I read it once. And, if I get up the nerve (maybe after re-reading The Iron Dream), I’ll read it again ( )
  figre | Aug 11, 2010 |
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