The main story takes place in a fragmented, depopulated, post-pandemic twenty-third-century America made up of various types of communities, the most organized of which are included in the "County-Township System." The protagonist, Gabrielle Malik-Perez, works as a professional historian charged with giving seminars which are informative but designed mainly to entertain. She lives in the township of SoMa within the county of San Francisco, patiently served and advised by her computer, Oscar.
Residents of SoMa are affluent, pleasure seeking, and generally, sexually promiscuous. In many ways the Township-County system is utopian. There is a twenty-hour workweek, environmental concerns are evident everywhere, and there is absolute equality between men and women and, indeed, between all citizens. Ownership is permitted but limited to nonessentials. Attractive, spacious housing, good food and a personal "household computer" are available to all.
There are no poor people, but those who work extra hours may earn money to buy luxuries. However, there are serious drawbacks to life in the County- Township system. For one thing, the L-Serum that makes it possible for people to live for centuries has side effects. It makes time seem to pass a little faster, thus partially undermining its purpose, and it decreases the intensity of emotional responses to some degree. Moreover, almost all the women choose to remain childless because pregnancy causes rejection of the L-serum (at the beginning of the novel there are only 27 children in SoMa Township). Toward the end of the novel,Gabriele's best friend, Franny, finds a solution to the rejection problem by giving birth to a clone of herself. In the short term this freaks Gabrielle out and, in the long term, sets a precedent, creating problems for the entire County-Township system.
Early in the novel, Oscar (Gabrielle's “household computer,”) gives Gabrielle a fax received from the County government advising her that a house once owned by her ancestors is scheduled for demolition and that she can visit it before it is gone, if she wishes. They send her a facsimile key through Oscar's fax function. With the help of Oscar and her lover Charles (with whom she later quarrels over differing views on the L-Serum), Gabrielle discovers some memoirs and other papers her ancestors had stashed away (these are included in the novel, providing a variety of stories and voices and worlds). Gabrielle learns about the far from idyllic lives her relatives write about, a long-ago time she contemplates in the midst of a very pretty life with very pretty people, and she is deeply affected. These papers create unease in Gabrielle and she begins to see her world differently.
This report prepared by Shelagh Pratt Mooberry