2016’s Transferral is a debut novel from Canadian-by-choice author Kate Blair. It is not listed as such on her ISFDB entry because she does not have an ISFDB entry—someone should get on that—but her website confirms the info.
The weed of crime may bear bitter fruit in our world but in sixteen-year-old Talia’s world, crime produces endless snotty hankies. Once science provided the means to move diseases from one human to another, it didn’t take long for lawmakers to see that this could be a perfect tool to reward decent citizens while punishing lawbreakers. Break a minor law and receive some law-abiding citizen’s cold. Break a major crime and say hello to necrotising fasciitis.
Talia, herself a survivor of a brutal crime that left her sister and mother dead, has no doubts about the morality of the transferral system of punishment. What could possibly be wrong with making sure good things happen to good people by ensuring that bad things happen to bad people?
Talia barely hesitates when she sees a girl being threatened by a black man armed with a cleaver. It’s only afterwards, when the man has been detained and cast into England’s swift and lethally efficient justice system, that she begins to suspect she misinterpreted what she saw. But by that time it’s too late for the prisoner, a former doctor brain-damaged by a previous passage through the transferral system. It might not be too late for the man’s daughter, the girl Talia thought she was rescuing.
Talia’s heroism was a godsend to her father, a would-be Prime Minster whose National Law Party is trailing the Democratic Justice Party in the polls. Her sudden namby-pamby altruism can only end in criminal charges and that will make her a liability.
I could not take the McGuffin seriously. There’s no reason why disease-causing organisms removed from one human would then have to be placed into some other human. The premise might have worked better for me if the novel had been a fantasy; weird, cruel rules about maintaining the magical balance are commonplace features of fictional magic systems.
Upton Sinclair once said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” I cannot imagine that the people of Talia’s world are any more keen to grasp the essential injustice on which their health depends. The National Transfer Service (at least as it is depicted in this novel) efficiently victimizes a few to ensure the health of the many (or at least the well-connected) 1. That seems like it should be a broad enough base of appeal that there should be no way the Democratic Justice Party could successfully campaign with a promise to repeal the Service. What may tip the scales may be the way that the well-connected Talia is transformed from law-abiding citizen to criminal. She discovers that the Service not only victimizes minorities and the poor (who cares about them?) but inconveniences those who really matter 2. That’s an outrage.
Readers who, like me, look fondly on past youth, should bear in mind that this is aimed at much younger readers. Older readers will immediately spot that the plot will either involve Talia learning a sharp lesson about social inequity or, if published in disco-era Analog or Galaxy, a sharp lesson that poor people are awful. This book isn’t for those older, experienced readers. A young reader may well never have encountered a book where everything the protagonist thought they knew turned out to be wrong.
I would be very interested to see what a reader of appropriate age, someone not lumbered with thick dense sedimentary layers of accumulated book plots, would make of this. I think I can get some idea from the fact that Transferral was optioned by the same people who produce the TV series Orphan Black (which I have never watched but about which I have heard good things).
Transferral can be purchased here.
1: Shades of Niven’s Known Space , where the electorate was more than happy to put up with draconian laws to ensure a steady supply of organs.
2: It is best not to spend any time thinking about all the ways Transfer can be abused. The author, doubtless in deference to her juvenile audience, mentions only those diseases that can be discussed in polite company 3. We older readers can imagine the transfer of HIV from the well-born to the rabble. Blair limits her setting to an alternate England, but I am sure there would have been a thriving black market that transferred diseases from First Worlders to poor Third Worlders.
3: One of the side effects is that all disease now implies criminality. If you have a cold, you don’t just have the sniffles. You are socially besmirched.