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BOOK REVIEW: PLAGUE CHILDREN, PREJUDICE AND WAR ERUPT IN “ONE OF US”

Thursday, April 11, 2019 | Books, Review

Review by Bryan Yentz

ONE OF US
Craig DiLouie
Orbit

Set in 1984, Craig DiLouie’s ONE OF US follows an alternate historical timeline in which a sexually transmitted disease results in physical mutations (sound familiar? Yeah, we’ll get to that). The afflicted  children known as “the Plague Generation” are kept separate from normal society by way of government mandated “Homes” where they live under the scrutiny and abuse of educators and wardens. Amongst the mutagenic brood are ever-loyal Dog (who looks like, wait for it, a canine) and his best friend Brain (who’s quite intelligent). Juxtaposing their strife-ridden existence is that of the “normal” children and their daily struggles of. . . trying to be cool, trying to protest and trying to belong. And overarching both parties, a wealth of bigoted and generally unappealing adults stuck in their prehistoric ways. Both sides live in general seclusion from the other, but when a mysterious murder occurs, the fingers of the “normals” all point to Dog and his fellow mutants, laying the groundwork for a new civil war.

One blatant issue with ONE OF US is that it clings too close to homogeneous mutant narratives, most egregiously, the groundbreaking 1995 comic BLACK HOLE by Charles Burns—from which many an idea seems to have been directly lifted. BLACK HOLE was a macabre metaphor displayed in dramatic black & white drawings that told of a sexually transmitted disease which resulted in physical mutation. It was a metaphor for adolescence, the segregation developed between “normal” & “freak” and ultimately, a murder which widens the expanse between the two worlds.

ONE OF US is about a sexually transmitted disease which results in physical mutation. It’s a metaphor for adolescence, the segregation developed between “normal” & “freak” and ultimately, a murder which widens the expanse between the two worlds. Hell, just like BLACK HOLE, ONE OF US even features a female protagonist that attempts to hide her mutation at school while trying to discover true love; one whom might accept her metamorphosis. As I was reading ONE OF US, I couldn’t help but see such obvious similarities and hoped it would evolve beyond a YA version of BLACK HOLE’s blueprint. Well, it does divert, but in doing so, becomes a retread of X-MEN. Seriously, there are even two characters with the same dueling relationship as Professor X and Magneto.

If that sounds silly, it’s because it is.

Tonally, these two halves just don’t meld cohesively, and the longer ONE OF US goes on, the more of a mess its culture clash becomes. What begins as a practical view (as much as it can be) of what might happen in rural America if such a disease existed, grows into an increasingly ridiculous tale—one which goes full eye-roll when it steamrolls through its final act with one character after another displaying unreasonable “super powers”. This robs ONE OF US of both its attempt at realism and stakes. There’s a suspension of disbelief (regardless of genre) that a reader must apply themselves, but that a narrative must also maintain of itself.

ONE OF US disregards this and unearths its more realized foundation to replace it with a quick-to-finish, unfocused Marvel comic/movie of clichés that aren’t explained in the slightest, they just happen. Reasonable abilities given a character’s physical mutation? Dog’s canine look, retractable claws, sharp teeth. What’s not reasonable? Pyrokinesis, telekinetic power blasts and most stupefying of all, a character identical to Phoenix from X-MEN. Early on, certain capacities for power are mentioned in passing snippets, but never properly addressed beyond one character stating something akin to “one of us can make fire.” Okay, that sounds really convenient, so how does he do it? But because these aren’t the focus, they don’t matter for 90% of the book and come off like a cop-out means of ending the novel without resistance.

For the duration of the plot, there’s a paralleling side-story to the main conflict which involves an increasingly obnoxious character named “Goof” who can foretell what people will say. This is the only otherworldly ability that DiLouie spends any time exploring (and the only one I could get behind) before self-sabotaging it. One would think that, because of all the time spent with Goof and his means of knowing what a subject will say—that it will have some sort of outcome involving Dog and those using their words to lie about him and see him killed. Alas, DiLouie denies expectation in favor of something inconsistently asinine instead. DiLouie attempts to ground so much of ONE OF US in scientific reasoning/hypothesis (and real genetic mutations) that it’s disappointing that all of the believable material is cast aside in favor of pure, unjustifiable fantasy—in turn—negating the solemnity that had preceded it.

Compounding this are DiLouie’s efforts at “country dialect” (that seemingly turn on/off at the drop a hat) and his baffling lack of descriptions considering the material at hand. They are far too general and don’t move beyond the most basic of written portrayals such as “his face is upside down”, “she has a trunk for a nose”, “he has tentacles”. Each character comes off like the start to a pitch, not a fully formed creation. This absence of detail makes their seemingly randomized abilities all the more obscure—especially given a handful of character’s last-act changes that aren’t properly addressed physiologically whatsoever.

As of ONE OF US scrambles to its nigh-apocalyptic finale, it becomes clear that DiLouie wanted to tell two very different stories. One that attempted to address the darker elements of human cruelty via a natural tale of physical differences, and one that catered to the YA crowd obsessed with cheesy kid uprisings (HUNGER GAMES, TWILIGHT, THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, MAZE RUNNER, etcetera). The result is a narrative that forgets and foregoes its best pieces (Dog; the initial murder-mystery) and replaces it with unlikable characters (practically anyone human) and X-MEN leaps in logic because, powers? It’s a strange concoction that doesn’t really work because it feels as though DiLouie attempted to cleave the content between an adult audience and that of a teenage one.

The beginning and middle are commendable in their serious depictions of murder, rape and inhumanity, but the cartoony/overblown finale is just a smattering of conflicting concepts and arcs that are poorly implemented, make little to no sense and feel geared toward a younger crowd. Of particular mention is a bizarre, badly written scene of entrapment involving one of the female protagonists and her mother that I don’t t believe conveys the “empowerment” that DiLouie thought he was encouraging. Had this mother/daughter team not already caused so much contention from their choices (that they never have to answer for nor come to terms with inwardly beyond one’s equivalent to an “oopsie!”) maybe the situation could have been rectified and rewritten, but as it is, it’s just another gratuitous shift in a novel that wants to have its cake and eat it too.

ONE OF US provides some successfully emotional moments and one commendable payoff for an unassuming personality relegated to the sidelines for the entirety of the novel, but it didn’t have the profound affect on me that many other critics appear to have experienced (one even stating that it “will change you”). The path ONE OF US treads has been long walked by better material (again, BLACK HOLE and ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU—which is, oddly enough, specifically cited herein too) and the only real addition DiLouie offers is his aforementioned attempt at X-MEN. ONE OF US has its heart in the right place, but the kitchen-sink approach to resolution rushes the overall experience into disappointment.

Bryan Yentz
Is a cinematic fanatic, writer and artist with a soft-spot for all things horror.