Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Home Front by Brian Stableford

When the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded around us and a series of ad hoc responses began to fall into place (rather than the activation of the pandemic response plan developed by the two previous administrations, which had long ago been dismantled and discarded by the Trump administration), I realized that something felt familiar. Like I had read all of this in a story somewhere.

Turns out I had.

I'm not sure when Brian Stableford wrote "The Home Front." It was first published in 2002 in an anthology of new works celebrating the 30th anniversary of DAW Books.  I purchased it in the bargain section of Barnes & Noble. 

It is a story set during the First Plague War some time in the future. (I believe the approximate date of the action is 2130.) I have always found the short story unpleasant in tone, and perhaps this is intentional. The narrator is callous and selfish, the father to a family of four. He works from home, thanks to injuries suffered in a terrorist bombing some years before, as a trader specializing in biotech stocks - the annoyingly named "plantigens" and "plantibiotics", genetically modified plants that produce resistance factors to the latest manufactured plagues being used in a terror war. He lives with his wife and two daughters, the younger of whom is immunocompromised and subject to a variety of health concerns, while the older is a teenager rebelling against her family's confinement.  Both the father's ability to work from home and the younger daughter's online classes are presented as aberrations, neither common nor generally accepted. The narrator carefully watches the market to determine the best time to buy and sell the various genetically modified potato and carrot seeds and rootstocks on behalf of his clients, and he views both his sickly younger daughter and rebellious older daughter as distractions. (Spoiler alert: While the climax of the story revolves around a missed opportunity to take advantage of a transient market peak due to a sudden medical crisis for the younger daughter, we are informed in an almost offhand manner that the older daughter eventually contracted and died from something she picked up on one of her outings with her friends.)

Stableford describes a world in 2130 not very different front what the world would become in 2020. In reality, both working from home and online classes for children  are more common and accepted in our timeline than the one he presents. He accurately describes the difficulties for a family isolating together, and the rebellious older sister will be familiar to anyone who has watched in horror tinged with jealousy as crowds cavort without the slightest concern for the consequences.

"The Home Front" is not a pleasant story, nor is it particularly enlightening. But it is descriptive of a reality that so closely resembles our own that future generations may scoff at Stableford's apparent lack of imagination.