Exile by Lisa Bradley is a post-apocalyptic, character-driven science fiction novel which I bought because I had met and liked the author. The apocalypse in this novel was local, affecting people living nearby with uncontrollable, violent rage. The federal government subsequently quarantined the town, and it’s remained shut away from the outside world, though they do have wifi at least.
Mother was pregnant with Sweet William when an unregulated semi biffed the turn into the parking lot for the QuanTex mixing plant. I was three, and we lived close enough to the industrial park that I heard the truck’s 6,500-gallon cylindrical tank rolling like a giant beer can across three lanes of traffic. Father, who’d been leaning under the hood of a pickup in our backyard, said I scrambled up his leg and onto his back like a chimp, said he nearly severed his thumb in the fan blade. The semi’s tank wasn’t properly annealed. It crumpled and cracked, spilling a toxin (to this day undisclosed) that ate into the surrounding vehicles, some of them ferrying other chemicals for QuanTex. Within minutes, a gangrene-yellow fog blanketed half the town. The neighborhoods nearest ground zero, like my family’s, became the Inner Radius; the ones farther out became the Outer Radius. Both zones were indefinitely quarantined by the federal government due to what the media called “Spill-Induced Rage.” Technically, Exile was half of an already-existing town (the other half cleared out by mandatory evacuation), but we rezoned and renamed ourselves. And if anybody called Exile by its old name, they got schooled fast with a blunt object.
Bradley tells this story from the point of view of Heidi, who is desperate to escape Exile and her ultra-violent family, enough so that she takes up with the outsider who killed her brother. Tank is an Outsider, a man who is not utterly consumed by the nonstop street battles; he came to Exile to run a construction business. Outsiders are only allowed to stay in Exile for five years. Natives of Exile have to pass a test in order to go into the outside world, and very few pass it because of course they have no control over what’s required of them.
The quarantine imposed on Exile was semipermeable. Just as we couldn’t see into the panopticons but the guards could see us via one-way glass, we couldn’t leave town unless we passed the feds’ 4-S test: you had to be strong, smart, sane, and sterile. (All defined, of course, exclusively by the feds.)
Heidi has already failed the test several times, being forced to wait years for each chance to attempt it again. One of the test requirements is “Sanity,” which seems like a difficult thing to prove, and not necessarily related to The Rage; another is “Sterility,” which has uncomfortable echoes of forced sterilization in the United States. There’s resonance with restrictive United States immigration laws, and our society’s treatment of disabled people, and people at the mercy of oppressive systems, all underlying and shaping the surface conflicts. Most dramatically, it’s about people who are trapped, both physically and by being Othered because of barriers between them and the rest of the world.
The novel has the claustrophobic feel of a zombie siege movie, tension ramping up to an explosive, tragic climax. Though the affected people aren’t dead, their unreasoning fighting and the potential contagiousness of the Rage felt, to me, a bit like a “Human versus The Environment” conflict. Please note there is a lot of explicit, bloody violence, some of it direct, some of it collateral. Bystanders are not immune.
Bradley skillfully layers in a plethora of ideas, bringing them to life with poetic specific detail. I am not a huge fan of either horror or apocalyptic novels, but Bradley’s prose style and intriguing setting pulled me in from the shocking first sentence. Heidi’s longing and scheming for escape and a better life felt extremely relatable. The story only grew tenser and more involving as a noose of danger tightened around the lead characters, but the payoff was worth the pain. Highly recommended!