O-Zone is a dramatic and frightening vision of the future, of a world which has reproduced the worst features of the twentieth century. Like most good science fiction, the novel does not stretch probability, but like few other futuristic novels, it has both an exciting story and a challenging idea.
In this twenty-first-century world, there has been no nuclear war—in fact, as one character notes, “We’re living in the longest period of peace known to the world”—but worldwide economic collapse and a series of natural disasters have radically changed the geopolitical globe. The United States is divided into zones, and in the secured zone that is now New York City, powerful Owners move around in space suits, protected by elaborate technology from the polluted environment and from the aliens—various bands of Starkies, Skells, Trolls, Diggers, and other non-Owner outsiders who populate the rest of the country and scavenge for survival. It is a white oligarchy, where the wealthy few live in secured cities and everyone else has become almost nonhuman. Certain parts of the country have actually become uninhabitable; O-Zone, for example (formerly the Ozarks), has been poisoned by the nuclear wastes stored in caves.
All this information comes out naturally as the story unfolds. Eight Owners, on a New Year’s Eve lark, fly to O-Zone in their jet-rotors for a holiday visit. Their adventure, however, turns to disaster when they discover that there are aliens living in this restricted region. Hooper Allbright, the leader of their party, is forced to kill two aliens, and the Owners flee back to the security of their sealed New York apartments. The trip, however, will continue to affect all of them.
What is clear from the beginning of the novel is that, while technological progress has apparently continued into the twenty-first century, political and social development has not kept pace. The people here are repulsive, not only because of their insulating wealth, but also because in their evolution into Owners, they have lost most of the qualities that would make them—by twentieth century definitions, at least—fully human. There is little communication between brothers, or between husbands and wives; Owners inhabit their own “survival suits,” wearing colorful masks that obscure their faces and helmets that are both telecommunication systems and VCR’s. The worst of them are the youngest: Fisher “Fizzy” Allbright terrorizes the adults because he knows more about their technology, and he is abusive to everyone. “He had no humor, no grace, only the rattle of incessant information.” Hardy Allbright cares about his son only because Fizzy can navigate to areas Hardy wants to explore for the weather mountains he builds; Moura Allbright feels nothing for her son.
Yet there is hope for a few of the Owners. Back in the security of his New York fortress, Hooper Allbright thinks about a young alien girl from O-Zone named Bligh with whom he has fallen in love. He engages Fizzy to fly him back to O-Zone, where he captures the girl, but Fizzy himself is kidnaped by the band of aliens with whom Bligh has been living. Now three separate stories go off on parallel tracks: Lacking “a family that needed him,” Hooper finds it in his relationship with Bligh (who comes to love the leisure and luxury of Owner life); Fizzy grows into maturity by traveling with the aliens, who turn out to be survivors of the twentieth century and who have no weapons or power; and Moura’s unhappiness drives her to seek out Fisher’s biological father, whom she has not seen in fifteen years.
What Theroux has managed to do in O-Zone—and it is a quality that distinguishes his other fiction as well—is to infuse this exciting story with a number of challenging themes. O-Zone is a “good read” that is much else besides: a challenge to accepted notions of where the human race is in its history and where it is headed.
In some ways, O-Zone is an initiation story in the classic American sense. Fisher Allbright is a kind of Huck Finn in the twenty-first century who, through his travels with the aliens, grows from innocence to experience in an alien world. In New York, Fisher was an advanced student in particle physics who never left his sophisticated computer system, but in O-Zone, the aliens think that he is retarded (he is indeed illiterate, for he has lost the ability to write simple sentences) and call him a “drooly.” Yet, slowly, the two sides learn to care for each other: Fizzy brings the aliens his knowledge of technology, and they provide him with a real family. As they wander through what was once the Midwest, Fizzy learns to live off the land and becomes strong and healthy. (He is so weak when they capture him that one of the aliens jokes that he would only eat Fizzy if he were a vegetarian.) In the end, after an arduous journey to New York, where the aliens plan to return Fizzy to his parents, he opts to stay with the band that has become his family, and they all head back to the Ozarks. Like Huck Finn at the end of his adventures, Fizzy chooses the wilderness rather than return to the civilization of sterile Owner life.
(The entire section is 2135 words.)