Published by Riptide Publishing on February 17, 2014
Genres: Dystopia, Erotic Romance, M/M
Amazon | Goodreads
In a world with little hope and no rules, the only thing they have to lose is themselves.
Rhys Cooper is a dead man. Cut off from the world since childhood, he’s finally exposed to the lethal virus that wiped out most of the human race. Now his only hope for survival is infection by another strain that might confer immunity. But it’s sexually transmitted, and the degradation he feels at submitting to the entire squad of soldiers that rescued him eclipses any potential for pleasure—except with Darius, the squadron’s respected, capable leader.
Sergeant Darius Murrell has seen too much death and too little humanity. He’s spent a decade putting plague victims out of their misery and escorting survivors to a safe haven he can never enjoy. He’d rather help Rhys live than put him down, so when Rhys can’t reconcile himself to doing what’s necessary to survive, Darius is forced to save Rhys in spite of himself.
But with each passing day, it looks less and less likely that Rhys can be saved. Which means that soon Darius might have to put a bullet in the head of the one person in years who reminds him of what it means to be human.
Do you like DVD extras? Yeah? So do I. In fact, it’s entirely possible I’ve watched the appendices on the Lord of the Rings extended editions more times than I have the movies themselves.
So for the Strain blog tour, I’m going to try to make my posts a bit like the “behind-the-scenes/making-of” documentaries you might find on a good DVD. A lot of things the world-building and events that Strain depends on happen long before the events of the book itself, and while an in-depth recap of them during the course of Strain got in the way of the flow of the story, I find some of the back-story fascinating and hope you will as well.
Be sure to check the blog tour page at Riptide to see when each of these posts is scheduled.
Commenters at each stop along the way will be entered into a drawing for the chance to win one of three ebook copies of Impulse: The Complete Trilogy, the all-in-one edition of my novel-in-three parts. Please include your contact information, either email, Twitter, or Facebook. The Contest will be open until February 28th, with the winner being announced March 1—just in time for the release of Every Inch of the Way/To the Very Last Inch (The Professor’s Rule #4 and #5), the final two installments of my series with Heidi Belleau. So stay tuned for that as well!
The Strain Blog Tour, Part Six: Giving Life (Fluid Exchange as a theme in Strain)
Preface: I’m going to make it very, very clear that I am a huge proponent of safer sex for both men and women, and believe that unprotected sex—if undertaken at all—should only occur in the context of committed, exclusive relationships. Please do not interpret anything I write here as an endorsement of unsafe behaviors.
This subject is one I’ve been shuffling around in my head trying to put into coherent discussion for nearly a year and a half, since I first began writing Strain, and I still don’t know if I’ve managed to make it make sense to anyone but me.
As I’ve mentioned, well, pretty much everywhere, the basic premise behind Strain is the fuck-or-die trope, or as it’s called at TV Tropes, “mate-or-die.” No, I’m not going to link to it here, because you’ll never find your way back to finish this post. Instead, I will c/p the definition and include a link at the end of this post, if you really want to lose yourself in the labyrinth that is TV Tropes.
TV Tropes defines Mate-or-Die as follows:
“Thanks to inherent biological traits, some form of Applied Phlebotinum, etc, two characters are in a situation where they have to have sex in order to save their lives. Frequently used in Fan Fic, especially Slash Fic.
A variety of Deus Sex Machina, with a bit of Intimate Healing thrown in. Compare with Aliens Made Them Do It. If saving the species is the reason then it might be an Adam and Eve Plot.”
If you were reading this definition at TV Tropes, you would probably then click on the link for Deus Sex Machina (because that’s how they suck you in) which reads as follows:
“Any speculative fiction contrivance for inserting sex where it would otherwise be implausible. When used properly, this trope can be used to explore sex-as-metaphor. When used poorly, it’s just an excuse to dress up pornography as plot. Most examples probably fall somewhere in the middle.”
Needless to say (or perhaps it does need to be said) I’m going for the sex-as-metaphor variety with Strain, not the dress-up-pornography-as-plot.
For a couple years now, I’ve been the beneficiary of research my friend, author Leta Blake, has shared regarding barebacking and why gay men might do it. The reasons range anywhere from the belief that fluid exchange is a very intimate, powerful act to rebellion against what some gay men perceive as moralizing (however well-intentioned) on the part of AIDS educators. But my particular focus here today isn’t on the prevalence of condom usage and barebacking in a real-life context, except to segue into a discussion of how these matters are handled in romance fiction.
Last June, author Rick R. Reed wrote a guest article for Jessewave about barebacking in m/m romance. It was a great discussion, and not the first time I’d seen a gay male m/m romance author speculating on the subject (there was considerable discussion about the choices made by Brandon Shire’s characters in the Afflicted duology), and the upshot of it all seems to be that condom usage in m/m romance is far more prevalent than it is in the real-life gay community. The boilerplate reason for this seems to be that our gay male heroes in these novels are idealized and therefore they will almost always do the safe, responsible, wise thing. Romance readers don’t want to read about a hero being unsafe and irresponsible. So, unless a discussion about HIV status and monogamy occurs first, they’ll wrap it up.
But, as Leta Blake pointed out—and I totally agree—this shines a bit of a spotlight on a double-standard within the romance genre. (I know that is a bit of a generalization and some readers will say they DO want to see it in m/f romance, but if we’re being honest, the readers who would be jolted out of an m/f romance for lack of condom usage are far, far fewer than those for m/m romance.) Heroes in het romance are rarely regarded as being less heroic for not using a condom. Why does this expectation—that the responsible, “heroic” standard is consistent condom usage—only apply to m/m romance?
We all know the answer to that, of course. Unprotected sex between men and women is perceived as a positive, life-giving thing. Which, of course, it quite literally is at times. Without it, we couldn’t reproduce. And since the height of the AIDS epidemic, unprotected sex between men is considered a dangerous, even deadly thing. Never mind that HIV and other STIs can be transmitted by means of m/f sex, the sad fact is, when we think of HIV, we think of the gay male community.
So, if you see unprotected m/f sex in a romance novel, you can assume it’s going to be handwaved on the disease front. If there are any ramifications, it will be a pregnancy, and that will end up being a positive thing that will help seal the deal for the romance plotline of the book, even if the characters are distressed by it to begin with.
But if you see unprotected m/m sex in a romance novel, it either has to be negotiated first, or there has to be a discussion about the ramifications afterward. It’s never going to be regarded as a positive thing, only as a risky, dangerous thing the consequences of which may only be ameliorated if our heroes have been very good boys.
In Strain, though, I turn that perception on its head.
My main characters in Strain, except for Rhys and Jacob, are Jugs. What are Jugs? They are the subjects of a bioweapons project called Project Juggernaut, in which a virus was administered to a battalion of Army troops to turn them into super-soldiers. Faster, stronger, more stamina, you know, the usual super-soldier gig. But that virus, known as Bane Alpha, has another strain, Bane Beta. When a Jug is wounded and their blood exposed to air and the clotting agents of an open wound, it mutates into what was meant to be a debilitating—but turned out to be deadly—virus. Beta was intended to weaken enemy forces but ended up bringing about the destruction of humanity, and (this wasn’t planned by the viral engineers) Beta can further mutate into a Gamma strain, which isn’t fatal but will turn the victim into a maddened, super-humanly strong, zombie-esque cannibal. (See Part One of this blog tour at The Jeep Diva for more information about Project Juggernaut.)
Let’s consider the other ramifications here. Jug blood is deadly, yes, but what about semen? Well, it doesn’t necessarily have to be exposed to air, or the clotting factors of an open wound, which means the Alpha strain is transmissible via sex. A receptive partner (because m-to-f and m-to-m rates of transmission of these things are usually higher than f-to-m) of a Jug can become a Jug. This is the situation Rhys finds himself in—Alpha generates antibodies to Beta and Gamma, so if he can be exposed to Alpha quickly enough, he may begin to produce antibodies to the Beta/Gamma strains, to which he has also been exposed.
In this case, the fluid exchange between male-bodied people is a—if not life-giving—then at least life-preserving, thing. A positive thing. A hopeful thing for the continuation of at least one man’s life.
But let’s look at the flipside. Childbirth involves blood. Therefore, female-bodied Jugs cannot have children. The virus doesn’t cross the placental barrier (let’s imagine carrying a fetus with the strength and nutritional requirements of a Jug. Or an infant, or—God help us all—a toddler) which means any child born to a female-bodied Jug will be infected with Beta at the moment of birth. For Jug m/f couples, fluid exchange is not and never will be a positive, life-giving thing. At best, it means the female-bodied Jug will need to abort before the pregnancy goes very far. At worst, it means within a few weeks of giving birth, a female-bodied Jug will end up watching hir baby die of a disease known—rather appropriately—as The Rot.
I have to admit, the second part didn’t occur to me until well into the process. I undertook the story fully intending to subvert the m/m fluid exchange=BAD trope, but it wasn’t until I considered the other implications of the disease that I realized what it would mean for female and FtM Jugs. I actually might not have done it, because the very last thing I wanted to do was create any sort of potentially traumatic sexual or reproductive issue for my female characters, but by then the lore was already firmly founded on this issue of the virus being deadly when blood-borne that I couldn’t restructure it.
I could have had it so that the antibodies to Beta and Gamma crossed the placental barrier, thus making the child immune. But that would have complications of its own, because then you would have humanity relying on the reproductive abilities of a couple hundred females—some of whom don’t identify as women—to breed a generation of immune children. But those female-bodied Jugs would be deadly to be around because of the risk of accidental exposure to their blood, so the only solution survivors would have had would be to quarantine the female-bodied Jugs and compel them to bear children in isolation, and there was no way my female characters would have stood for that. They would have kicked the ass of anyone who even thought of trying it. (See Part Four of this blog tour at Queer Town Abbey for more information on The Women of Strain.)
I thought it was an interesting take on the subject of fluid exchange, and while it has no actual relevance to the real-world necessity for safer sex, I found it a good opportunity to present a subject normally seen in a negative way in a more positive light.
Look for Jonetta’s review of Strain on February 25!
I also love to talk about books. There’s nothing more exciting than to finish a great story and cover it A to Z with other people, exploring different perspectives and points of view. So, if you see something on my shelf you’d like to talk about, send me a message and we’ll talk!
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