Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"Where Do You Get Your Ideas?" RASH

"In the year 2074, french fries are illegal,
football has been banned, and running
 isn't just for your health anymore"
Rash, set in the year 2074, is the story of a teen growing up in the USSA (the United Safer States of America). Football and French fries have been outlawed. People wear walking helmets. Verbal abuse is a serious crime. Sharpened pencils have been banned in schools. Canada has been annexed to protect our northern border. In short, it is a world no more different from today than today is from fifty years ago.

The story features an animated AI that takes the form of a talking monkey, a prison complex run by McDonalds and dedicated to manufacturing frozen pizzas, polar bears, and a crotchety old grandpa born in 1990. It’s a cautionary tale about what might happen when personal safety trumps personal freedom. Here’s how I got there:

Back in 2002, I read an article about a mysterious, contagious skin rash that had invaded a middle school in Virginia. Students were plagued by sudden, unexplained rashes on their arms, necks, and faces. Medical professionals descended upon the school, parents pulled their kids out of classes, and a host of theories was put forth: chemical pollution, exotic bacteria or viruses, allergens spread through the ventilation system, a bad batch of soap in the locker rooms, anthrax, bioterrorism, and so forth. Despite extensive testing, no biological or chemical antigens were discovered.

The plague quickly spread, not just in Virginia, but at dozens of other elementary and middle schools across the United States. No outside cause was proven at any of the schools involved.

I’m going to make a very long story short here: in all likelihood, the rashes were caused by rashes. One kid would complain of a rash—possibly a result of an allergy or other outside stimulus, and soon—often within the hour—his or her classmates would experience similar symptoms. This is an example of “psychogenic illness,” or what used to be referred to as “mass hysteria.” The rash spreads in the same way a yawn or a cough can ripple through a crowd.

In the case of rashes, the skin irritation is believed to be “spread” by students scratching, rubbing, or otherwise irritating an imagined itch. It is possible the rashes are, in some cases, purely psychogenic (erupting without physical stimulation), but that has not been proven. What seems certain is that the plague enters the body through the eyes and ears, is processed by the brain, and manifests in the dermis.

I saw in this a germ of an idea, and began “doodling” scenes about a contagious rash in a high school. As often happens, the germ grew legs and galloped off in a whole different direction. Rash became a story about a near-future dystopia. The psychogenic rash still has a place in the book, but it’s a minor plot point only loosely connected to the main theme of the story, which is, “What is the cost of personal safety?”

It’s no coincidence that I began writing Rash shortly after the signing of the Patriot Act and the rise of the Department of Homeland Security. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) claims to be keeping us safe from terrorists, but they cannot prove they have foiled a single terrorist plot in the past eleven years. Cost of the TSA? $60,000,000,000 so far, and tens of millions of hours of delays for travelers. If you include the cost of the preemptive war on Iraq, you can toss in another $800 billion. Is it worth it? How much are we willing to pay in dollars, inconvenience and psychological stress for increased security? Frankly, I’m not sure, but that many billions seems a bit pricey.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 were real. It was the single most economically devastating military action in history. From that ugly, tragic beginning, one might argue, a self-destructive “psychogenic illness” has beset us as a nation. Al-Qaeda has been effectively defeated as an organization, but we continue to scratch and claw at ourselves.

If you can't find Rash at your local bookstore, order online from: 
Indiebound  (lets you order from your favorite independent bookseller)
Barnes & Noble

Next week: How to Steal a Car

1 comment:

Daughter Number Three said...

I loved Rash, and particularly the way you don't oversimplify the topic. (If you don't me oversimplifying my thoughts on the book.)