The world A. E. Stueve creates in his just-released novel Former is warped, chilling, and bristling with menace. Battered and terrified from the Infection War, the survivors distrust one another. Their greatest fear is of formers, people who were once infected with a man-made disease that takes over the mind and fills the victim with one over-powering urge, to attack and eat other people. A shadowy and powerful pharmaceutical firm, Profine, which invented the cure, now houses the formers in compounds where it protects them and works to return them to something close to normal lives.
But the jumpy population outside Profine’s protective compounds is vulnerable to canny and unscrupulous media manipulators. One popular blogfeed is Zex Starshine’s Unreality, where master rabble-rouser Zex Starshine beguiles and horrifies his audience with startling revelations about corporate greed, government conspiracy, and the secret threat of another former uprising. (What are those people planning in those sprawling compounds?)
I know what you’re thinking — this horrifying world sounds like today’s venomous climate of mutual demonization and seething hatreds. In both our world and the world of Former, the Internet, that impossible-to-kill cockroach of misinformation overload, fairly throbs with voices screaming about what “those people” are up to now.
For Billy Dodge, the protagonist of Former, things go from dystopian to apocalyptic when he storms out of a group therapy session for formers like himself and ends up accused of complicity in murder. His only chance of clearing himself is to trust the mysterious figures within Profine. Billy has already lost much, including his wife, who killed herself rather than succumb to the dread disease. His brush with death and survivor guilt have made Billy world-weary, yet he is driven to prove to himself he’s still alive, sometimes in ways that only make things worse.
This novel manages to be both bleak and breathtaking, grim and darkly comical. It’s impossible not to sympathize with Billy Dodge despite his impulsiveness and semi-suicidal urges and bad choices. Billy’s determination to convince himself he’s not only a human being, but still himself, despite the disease that once made him a monster, reminds me of the works of Philip K. Dick.
I’ll make a prediction: This book will be used in writing classes to illustrate the right way to create an unforgettable atmosphere, one that perfectly suits the story that emerges from it. Highly recommended.