O-Zone

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2135

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.

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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.

An even more American theme in Theroux’s novel—for it is one that precedes the discovery of the New World—is the idea of the wilderness as a moral testing ground. Human fallibility has made O-Zone uninhabitable, the Owners think, and they regard the region as a wilderness Hell that they soon want to flee. The aliens, however, have adapted to this harsh environment, and it is their Eden. It is within this wilderness testing ground that Fisher grows into some kind of adulthood and proves himself human after all.

Theroux gets one to think about these and other ideas without teaching or preaching. In fact, his impersonal third-person narrative often creates a distance between reader and story. The novel opens in medias res in an abandoned city in O-Zone (probably Saint Louis), and readers are scrambling so hard to understand this strange world that they unconsciously accept the moral perspective of the Owners. (Aliens, for example, are seen at the beginning as subhuman outcasts.)

Suddenly, in part 3, when Fizzy is captured by the aliens, a disorienting reversal takes place. When Fizzy calls one of the aliens by the name the Owners use for them, the man responds, “You’re the only alien here, piggy,” and it becomes clear, as this section develops, that the aliens are much more human than their Owner enemies, the powerful and technologically superior people who have created this two-class world and live off of it. The Owners, in their isolation and insulation, have devolved into subhuman technological units, with little emotion or conscience. It is the alien tribe, struggling to survive, that keeps the human flames alive. The Owners live in Coldharbor, while the aliens inhabit Happy Valley; the Owners have all the weapons, but the aliens have everything else. Theroux does not describe in any detail how this oligarchic world evolved, but it is realistic enough to make readers recognize its plausibility.

Theroux forces the reader to confront the kind of ideological and psychological struggle that goes on in any clash of cultures—Southeast Asians in the United States, for example, or Africans in England. One side justifies itself as God’s camp, and the other becomes . . . less than human. By the middle of O-Zone, the enormity of this dystopian nightmare is fully revealed: The Owners have replicated the very worst of twentieth century civilization—its racism, its mindless belief in weapons and technology, its disregard for the environment—and relegated all other people to the dustbin of history. (For much of the last part of the novel, Fizzy and his band are pursued by Godseye, a militaristic vigilante group that randomly kills aliens.) In the end, Fizzy comes to understand that “it was not the world but New York that was dangerous,” forIt was weapons that made Owners seem strong. Without them, they were naked. They weren’t tough, they had no cunning, their senses were deficient. But an alien with technology hardly seemed an alien at all.

The people who still are human, Fizzy discovers, are the outlaws and the outcasts, those who did not make it into the elite state or those who opted out. When Moura finally locates Fizzy’s biological father—in Landslip, the nightmare world Southern California has become as the result of earthquakes and other disasters—it is clear that, like his son, the father has freed himself from the protective jail of the Owners and has chosen the more real and human world of the aliens.

Perhaps Theroux will prompt his readers to speculate that there is hope after all. When Fizzy and the tribe wander through the Midwest on their trek to New York, they come across several small farming communities where traditional American values and rituals are being practiced. When Hardy Allbright, who is chasing his son with Godseye, stops in a small town, he is offered a piece of pie by a woman. “This is the past,” he thinks to himself, “a memory,” the survival of an older and better America, where people still care about one another. Theroux gives the reader hope that this America can be rediscovered.

Other writers and artists have had similar visions of the future. Margaret Atwood’s award-winning novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1986; reviewed in this volume) has a similar dystopian theme—a picture of a future where a white oligarchy rules, others are slaves, and pollution is everywhere. A whole subgenre of films (such as Blade Runner, 1982, and The Road Warrior, 1981) has postulated a postnuclear future, where land is controlled by outlaws, the “off-world” seems the only escape, and humans are more like animals.

What counters this grim picture is the novel’s hopeful vision of community. Moura finds her mate, Hooper his Bligh, and Fizzy survives in the wilderness, not because of his weapons, but because of the help of others. The aliens give him food, tools, and love, and it is easy to see why at the end he opts for their warm caves rather than return to the Coldharbor caves of Manhattan. Against the bleakness of his imagined future, Theroux poses the notion of “organism,” of living humans sharing their lives in the struggle for survival in the wilderness—and retaining their humanity.

The novel works, in part, because Theroux’s prose is so sure and so subtle. The long novel is divided into six parts, and the pace varies in different parts: The most energetic are with Fizzy and his band or in pursuit of them; the love stories of Hooper and Moura move more slowly; the section that takes them all to Earthworks on the African coast seems unnecessary—merely a glimpse at how much worse the Third World is in this future. Finally, however, it is the point of view in the novel that works most clearly, the fixed distance between reader and narrative that explodes into a series of revelations in which expected roles are reversed. If Fizzy is an electronic genius, then his creator is one with words, as the language of the novel confirms. While all the characters speak a recognizable twentieth century English, they also have various tribal languages, and Theroux has created words for each group (“irons” for weapons and “flesh-pup” for sex partner, in Owner language) that are just right. Fizzy’s language, in particular, is a wonderful mix of electronic wizardry and adolescent naïveté, rudeness, and slang.

Paul Theroux has a much wider perspective than most late twentieth century American writers. For one thing, much of his work has been in the area of travel literature (some of the best of this genre in the century), and his familiarity with social and political geography has apparently deepened his perspective as a novelist. The Mosquito Coast (1982), for example, raises a number of interesting ideas in a story that is also about survival, this time on the Central American coast. O-Zone has a similar appeal. The novel is an exciting adventure, and at its center are several important questions about the future of the human race. To read O-Zone is to reexperience the best of twentieth century anti-utopian fiction, from Aldous Huxley through George Orwell to Margaret Atwood. Who are we? Where are we headed? Finally, is there any way to stop the march of progress toward this horrific future? Dystopian fiction is social criticism looking sharply backward, and O-Zone should compel readers to examine the values and institutions of American life in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 55

Booklist. LXXXII, June 1, 1986, p. 1417.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, July 15, 1986, p. 1064.

Library Journal. CXI, September 15, 1986, p. 102.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 21, 1986, p. 3.

New Statesman. CXII, October 17, 1986, p. 29.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, September 14, 1986, p. 12.

Newsweek. CVIII, September 15, 1986, p. 74.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, July 25, 1986, p. 173.

Time. CXXVIII, September 1, 1986, p. 84.

The Wall Street Journal. CCVIII, September 22, 1986, p. 22.

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