Sherri L. Smith shows readers a frightening --- and all-too-possible --- future vision of America in ORLEANS.
The year is 2056. New Orleans and the Gulf region has been battered for the past half-century or more with a series of increasingly devastating hurricanes, starting with Katrina in 2005 and escalating
to Hurricane Jesus in 2019, a storm so powerful it required a whole new category to define it. The physical destruction caused by these storms, though, was dwarfed by the human toll that followed, in the form of violence, suicide and illnesses, most notably Delta Fever, a deadly virus so powerful and deadly that it has resulted in the quarantine and effective secession of the entire Delta region of the United States.
"Beyond constructing this nightmarish future world, Smith also develops a story that focuses on the idea of trust and on how people who have been taught not to trust anyone --- and who, in fact, have been repeatedly betrayed --- can potentially overcome their reluctance and their fear."
The rest of the United States has become known as the "Outer States," and New Orleans has become just Orleans, a vast and dangerous wilderness populated by tribes united by blood type, fighting each other for supplies and occasionally harvesting each other for blood to try to extend their lives. Daniel, a young scientist in the Outer States studying Delta Fever, believes that Orleans is virtually abandoned, its inhabitants mostly having fallen victim to the Delta Fever. Daniel sets off on a mission across the wall separating Orleans from the Outer States; in his attempts to find a cure for the Delta Fever, he has accidentally created a far more powerful version of the virus, one that could be weaponized if it lands in the wrong hands. His hope is that by visiting a research institute behind the wall, he can combine their work with what he's learned and come up with a genuine cure for the disease.
Imagine Daniel's surprise when, very shortly after donning his virus-proof encounter suit and making his way beyond the wall, he is kidnapped by blood hunters and placed in a cell along with a loud-mouthed, opinionated Delta girl named Fen, who's caring for a newborn baby. Daniel doesn't know it, but the baby belongs to Fen's tribal leader and mentor, Lydia, who died in childbirth. Fen knows that she only has a few days to get the baby girl to safety, or else the child will be doomed to live (and eventually die) with Delta Fever, just like everyone else behind the wall. Fen seems rough and unsophisticated, but is it possible that she can help Daniel find the knowledge he needs? And can Daniel help Fen --- or at least the child she desperately wants to save?
The near future world that Sherri L. Smith creates is both frightening and all too plausible, given the patterns of climate change and increasingly violent storms that have characterized recent years. Beyond constructing this nightmarish future world, Smith also develops a story that focuses on the idea of trust and on how people who have been taught not to trust anyone --- and who, in fact, have been repeatedly betrayed --- can potentially overcome their reluctance and their fear.
Several recent novels (THE DIVINERS, OUT OF THE EASY) have depicted New Orleans' romantic and sometimes sordid past. ORLEANS builds on that legacy, as well as on the events of more recent history, to write a story about the resilience and survival of the New Orleans people and spirit in the future, as well.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 7, 2013