In the not-so-distant future of Paul Theroux’s new novel, the United States has changed dramatically. Spills of toxic waste have necessitated a strict quarantine on the Midwest, and earthquakes have destroyed most of the West Coast. Civilization survives mainly in New York City, where a privileged class of “Owners” leads a hedonistic existence in a world of high-tech condo towers. Gestapo-like police squads protect these card-carrying citizens from the vast hordes of undocumented aliens, illegals, and “throwaways” that clamor at the gates in New Jersey. Since all aliens are presumed to be refugees from quarantined areas, the standard procedure is to shoot first and ask questions later.
Life in the new New York is safe but boring. Men with too much time on their hands join vigilante groups and spend their weekends zapping aliens with particle-beam weapons. Their wives lunch on exotic test-tube foods and then retreat to trendy sex clinics for masked encounters. Everyone spends days at a time in a supposedly therapeutic drug-induced state of coma.
The story follows a wealthy group of Owners on a weekend safari to O-Zone, a radioactive hot spot once known as the Ozarks. The visitors are surprised to find that the area supports a large population of seemingly healthy aliens. One of the Owners, Hooper, falls in love with an O-Zone flower child, and he later returns to “rescue” her, accompanied by a brilliant nerd named Fizzy. Hooper kidnaps the girl and the aliens retaliate by kidnaping Fizzy.
O-ZONE is typical of science fiction written by mainstream authors in that the futuristic details are not especially imaginative. Theroux’s brave new world is basically an exaggeration of the present. The real concerns are the same ones he has had throughout his career; the fate of the Third World, the sins of industrial nations, and the motives of exiles and immigrants. In fact this may be his most representative work. Theroux works the Owner/Alien dichotomy for all it is worth, throwing out pithy insights on almost every page. The only problem is that there are simply too many pages, and the first one-hundred or so read very slowly indeed. Nevertheless, those willing to put in a little extra effort will find O-ZONE to be a fascinating and thought-provoking novel.