Every dystopia actually reveals the writer's anxiety about the present. In Chaffs, Douglas P. Lathrop follows the Tea Party movement to its natural conclusion: a fascistic nightmare state that slaughters people of color, tortures queer people in reeducation camps, and spies on its citizens, all for the glory of the "Fourth Great Awakening," headed by President Muldoon, a cult of personality leader whose framed picture hangs in every home.|
The narrator, Tyler Treppenhouse, knows there's something odd about himself, that he doesn't quite fit into the rigid masculinity required of all males of his world. But it's not until he meets handsome skater boy Casey that he realizes the truth: he's gay, and in America after the Fourth Great Awakening, that means he might as well be dead. As their relationship develops, Tyler gradually learns that his world is built on horror upon horror, and he must make the ultimate sacrifice to save Casey's life: becoming a mole at a reorientation center. Yet, queer folks aren't the only ones who suffer under the Muldoonian regime, and during his mission Tyler learns that the resistance is bigger than he ever thought possible.
For all the talk about diversity, there really doesn't seem to be that many gay protagonists in YA fiction, and very few in YA science fiction*. Actually, I can't think of any right now, though I'm definitely not as well-read in YA as some folks. The love story which drives the plot feels raw and true, and Tyler's gayness isn't a tacked-on identity. Nor is it the kind of gay love story that's written to be titillating to straight women; there is a lot of sex, but it's all necessary to the plot, and in a world where either of the main characters could die at any moment because of their love for each other, the sex carries a lot of emotional weight.
The setting of Chaffs also hits much closer to home than most dystopias, there is the real sense that this could be our world (and if you don't think that, then you must have not been around in the 2000s). One interesting quirk is that aside from weaponry and surveillance, technology has been pushed backwards, so there's no Internet, no smartphones. Much like North Korea, the Muldoonian government tries to stifle revolution by isolating people from one another. Queer people who came of age before the Internet might also find this especially true to life. Tyler's isolation from any sort of queer community, his feeling like he's the only gay person in the world, was something that really resounded with me. LGBT rights are mainstream now, and even in the most rural areas gay teens can find some kind of community. But twenty years ago this wasn't true at all, especially in small towns, and the confusion of not knowing what you are and the fear of being found out all felt very honest to me. Even if I never had to deal with fascist shock troops, I still grew up at the tail end of a period where queerness just wasn't discussed except as a slur. It Got Better, but if you came out (if only to yourself) before the turn of the century, you don't forget what it was like back then. As a gay man a generation older than me, Lathrop was clearly mining some personal experience here.
Lathrop was an excellent writer, with a knack for believable dialogue, well-detailed description, and tightly-paced plotting. Sadly, this is his only novel, as he died last year. A truly great loss, as I think Chaffs was only the beginning to a great career. It's available from Amazon now, and I'm guessing there will be an electronic version as well. Whether you're queer or straight, an adult or a young person, this is a book that wins both on its politics and on being a fast-paced adventure into the heart of a sinister alternate America that could have been... and could still be, if we're not careful.
*Or adult science fiction, honestly. Especially gay males. I know there are exceptions, and I know things are changing rapidly, but... publishers still gotta cash in on that straight male nerd demographic. But that is an article for another time!