In Simon Lelic’s conspiracy-horror novel The Facility, the British government snatches scores of people off the streets and quarantines them in a secret facility. The official justification is the emergence of a deadly new virus that all the detainees—officially referred to as “patients” by the Margaret Thatcher-esque home secretary, and as “inmates” and “prisoners” by those actually keeping close watch over them—are all “characterized by their high risk behavior and aggressive promiscuity”: gays, intravenous drug users, “as well as several sex workers and their clients.” The Facility combines two recent focus points for public hysteria, AIDS and terrorism—one initially met with government indifference, the other a handy excuse for governmental overreach—and makes the reaction to them a single public-policy nightmare. In the press conference that is practically the only open acknowledgment of what’s going on, the home secretary announces, “I am ashamed to say… it took us years to recognise the extent of the HIV epidemic. By contrast, in response to what could well have become a public-health crisis on a scale even greater than that of HIV/AIDS, we have acted with alacrity and resolve.”
By “acting,” she means that those thought to be infected—conveniently, all people her voting base would consider society’s undesirables—have been locked away where they can be allowed to die off quietly, unseen and without upsetting anyone. Nor does it matter much if it turns out that most of those quarantined aren’t infected after all. The opening scene, in which an inmate named Arthur is interrogated by a couple of official thugs, makes it clear that no one swept up in this net is ever expected to be able to complain about how he was treated. Arthur provides the grunts’-eye-view side of the story, while on the outside, his wife Julia and an investigative reporter named Tom are struggling to get the rest of the world to care. The most complex, and ultimately, most moving character is Graves, the head of the facility, who slowly realizes he is expected to sign off on a policy too barbaric for him to stomach. Committing himself to expose the facility after a lifetime spent as a dependable enabler of those in power, he thinks, “This is what his wife has been begging of him. This, Graves tells himself, is letting go.”
As a thriller, The Facility is a perfect, gleaming piece of engineering. From the first sentences, it works like a vise, and the characters inside the Facility are believable and many-sided. (Outside, Tom’s idealistic naïveté often feels like a conceit, and Julia, the platonic, loving wife of closeted Arthur, just seems to be there to stoke Tom’s interest.) The book isn’t a lot of fun, though. It’s angry and doomy, and the conclusion provides no catharsis. Lelic isn’t always above the implausible and the overly obvious, but he does earn his right to take himself seriously, if only because it’s clear what he’s honestly angry about. This is an apocalyptic thriller, but it isn’t about the end of the world. It’s about the horror of what many people seem willing to tolerate, if they’re told it’s necessary just to keep their comfortable, untroubled world going a little longer.