Who are the monsters? That is the question Craig diLouie asks us in his staggeringly powerful novel One of Us (review copy from Orbit). Set in the 1980s, this is a novel that examines how society reacts to the Other. In this case, a group of children who have suffered mutations as a result of an incurable sexually transmitted disease carried by their parents. Ostracised and raised in special homes separate from polite society, these children are beginning to manifest special powers and as they approach adulthood that sparks questions about the future role they will play in society.
One of Us mixes up the moral panic of the 1980s AIDS epidemic with a healthy dose of racism and the consequences of the thalidomide scandal. People infected with the virus are ostracised, often hiding their infection and denying the mutated children they’ve borne. Infection is associated with sexual promiscuity and immorality. A new Puritanism has struck the country, with abstinence taught to young people in order to prevent the further spread of the virus and the creation of more mutated children.
Children who suffer from teratogenesis are kept apart in special institutions where they are fed, educated and used as slave labour in local businesses. They are subjected to cruelty and poor conditions from staff who work there because they are not able to get jobs anywhere else. Abuse and torture lead to injuries and death, with the authorities turning a blind eye. The children are seen as a burden on society, and a drain on taxpayers, rather than as people deserving of life and respect. They are taught that they are undeserving, with information strictly controlled and only the most basic education provided. But when some of the children start to manifest interesting abilities the Government sees opportunity, and starts to look at how the children can be exploited for the good of the nation.
One of Us is a brilliant study of how people are Othered, and how prejudice manifests and perpetuates itself within communities through fear and peer pressure. Focusing on a group of young people – both with and without teratogenesis – it shows how similar we all are. The desire for a better, more compassionate, future can unite us. diLouie also shows us how prejudice and mistreatment carries within it the seeds of revolution and rebellion. If every action provokes an equal and opposite reaction, then we should not be surprised that systemic prejudice and abuse will eventually lead those who are marginalised to push back.
This is a powerful and disturbing morality tale about humanity’s capacity for darkness, but also its fortitude, compassion and willingness to push for change.
Goodreads rating: 5*