Skin by Liam Brown
Allergies. They’re more and more commonplace, whether nuts, pollen, cats, dogs, horses, dust-mites… But what if they went one step further? What if we became allergic to something much more common, something we couldn’t avoid and something that would complicate even the creating of an anti-allergy drug (antihistamines won’t work)?
What if we became allergic to each other?
That’s the assumption behind which Skin explores the world, another currently-scary topic that Liam Brown likes (I’ve reviewed Broadcast previously). It does so through the eyes of a mother, one who reflects on what happens before the events of the book as the events of the book unravel and trigger those memories. She has just had the government gynaecologist attend her for egg donation – a risky business when she could be allergic to the hazmat-suited doctor – and she talks to her ‘Egg’ throughout, though for reasons we only uncover until later.
As ever in the onset of a John Wyndham-like global catastrophe, the effects start of gradually, in this case a few people dying of allergic reactions here and there. Then it accelerates as it spreads, having catastrophic effects on infrastructure, and soon even a peaceful, professional, middle-class family are forced to perform some pretty appalling actions to survive.
In flashback, it is these actions – theft, threats, murder – that start the alienation between the family members and give hints as to their later actions and reactions to isolation. For ultimately, the only way to manage acute and deadly exposure to this allergen is to isolate yourself from everyone: friends, family and lovers. Sure, you can live in the same house but cut off from everyone else, only going out (there is – has to be – a perpetual curfew) via a lengthy sterilisation chamber.
And you cannot meet anyone, expect via phone, or Skype or similar. No natural social interaction, no worker interaction, no family contact. Bringing up your children over the phone is a challenge – but is it effective? How long would it be before you went out of your mind for meaningful contact, yet knowing all the time it could kill you? The protagonist is lucky: her husband is a computer whizz developing a full-body VR suit and environment. They can afford the protective environment they have, but others…?
It’s a massive situational problem, with loads of potential, and a novel like Skin can only cover a small area. At times it has to skim over how fully immersive VR attempts to resolve the problem – unsatisfactorily for our hero – and skims over why it takes so long to develop and antigen to the virus causing all this trouble. But that’s not the core of the exploration of the situation, merely a supporting dialogue and all the better for being skimmed over.
For Skin is Liam Brown’s exploration of what we now only half understand, a dystopian near-future – a fear – where knowledge is a necessity. But it’s not about the problem, but about people, and how we, and those who govern us become alienated and cope ruthlessly with such extreme situations, one that could kill off the human race.
It’s about us.
Skin by Liam Brown is available from Legend Press.