Reviewed by: Ulysses Dietz
Member of The Paranormal Guild Review Team
As the author explains in an afterword, this is a short novel that grew out of a short story—a palate cleanser between books, so she tells us.
Pretty darn good for something that was created merely to scratch an itch, to clear the mind. Admittedly, it hasn’t got the punch or the emotional weight of the Psycop series, but it is good in all the ways Price’s books are good. It is a romance, but less about romance than about self-liberation.
Lee Kennedy is a perpetual college student, panicking at the pending marriage of his sister Emma. He has to give the wedding banquet toast and he has no clue what to say. Roman Sharp is the tall, angular, handsome cater/waiter who overhears him in the empty banquet hall trying to come up with the appropriately bland words that will neither offend nor excite.
This all feels quite normal, familiar, at first. But then it doesn’t. In a very “Twilight Zone” way one begins to feel a chill awareness that everything’s off. There’s a passing reference to the twenty-third century, and oblique conversation about a plague that clearly altered society. This is a world where people greet each other by saying “Happiness and Hope,” and the question “How are you?” is considered rude. It is also an America where there are two distinct groups: those that live in The Taxable District, and those that live in The Benefit Sector. As we piece together this fractured world of the future from snippets of conversation, the only core reason behind this difference we can find is one of degree: the tax laws have evolved into such gargantuan complexity that they have essentially created two massive, separate classes of Americans: Tax rats and Benefit Boomers. Those who conform to the The Algorithm, a carefully calibrated system that has replaced elected government, benefit. It was established, one imagines, to repopulate a nation decimated by a pandemic. The ultimate benefit is not a high salary or a big house, but tax breaks. College paid for. Housing provided. But conforming to the Algorithm means that, when you graduate college, you must accept the perfect mate chosen for you and marry. Denying the system is not fatal; it simply means you are taxed. Constantly. For everything.
Lee Kennedy, after a single kiss from Roman Sharp, realizes something that his extended education has kept suppressed: he’s gay. There is no moral problem with being gay. But if you’re gay and you don’t get married to a woman, you get taxed. You lose benefits.
And this is Lee’s dilemma. This is what forces Lee to look beyond the borders of his upbringing, to question the very system by which he has benefitted his whole life. He must challenge the prejudices carefully inculcated into him from birth, and try to find a way to his own truth.
There is a slightly unfinished feeling to this book; a few plot kinks that Price never managed to work out. It’s good, but I think it could have been incredible with some more tinkering. It offers us a terrifying vision of something that isn’t really very terrifying. That’s the trick that makes it so effective. There are no monsters, no death camps, no gangs of violent police. The banality of the social cataclysm makes it hard to grasp.
Conformity and fear of the unknown, rather than anything real, are what rule this society, in which the greatest act of heroism is simply to be yourself.