They said that the statue of Our Lady of the Sorrows wept tears of blood the day the sickness came to Santa Olivia. The people said that God had turned his face away from humankind. They said that saints remember what God forgets about human suffering.
Of course they said that in a lot of places during those years.The sickness -- a pandemic. This worldbuilding device has been used countless times and doesn't seem unique at all. Except this story is set in the U.S. / Mexican border where violent and controversial events often take place, plus I couldn't help but think of the recent swine flu pandemic scare and all those sad, terrifying and unfortunate deaths in Mexico from the virus. Thinking about those events made this worldbuilding device in Santa Olivia one that I could relate to and ultimately effective.
The day the soldiers arrived, Our Lady's tears dried to rust in her shrine. There were bullhorns and announcements about a wall, a new wall to the north to bracket the wall to the south.The walls. With the building of those walls, Carey strays further into possible realities. In this case, the one wall built around the Mexican border to prevent aggression from the south and the other to the north for further security brought to mind current debates about just this subject. The building of a wall to the south has been suggested many times by both politicians and citizens as an answer to security problems and illegal immigration. Given the circumstances presented by Carey in Santa Olivia, I could see it happening.
"We are at war!
This is no longer a part of Texas, no longer a part of the United States of America! You are in the buffer zone! You are no longer American citizens! By consenting to remain, you have agreed to this! The town of Santa Olivia no longer exists! You are denizens of Outpost No. 12!"Carey then incorporates the fact that the residents of Santa Olivia effectively exchange their freedom and civil liberties for what they believe is security. This is yet another contemporary issue that has been debated in recent times by our generation. Here, Carey explores abuse and manipulation by those in power vs. gullibility and ignorance of the masses.
The consequences to this particular aspect of her worldbuilding are key to the story. The people's dependency on the soldiers for safety and its evolution as these same soldiers degenerate from saviors to jailers and as the townspeople become prisoners in their isolation, is used by Carey as an extreme, if useful, example of what can happen when freedoms are surrendered. There is also a dehumanizing process that takes place as the people's absolute hopelessness morphs into greed, violence and perversions. In Santa Olivia the monsters are of the human sort not the fantastic, making them that much more effective.
Carey begins with possible realities as a base, some of which we can understand and relate to, and then in small increments expands and creates a future that is horrific in its simplicity. This base then strengthens the fantasy and science fiction aspects that Carey successfully incorporates in creating Santa Olivia's world.