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Bald New World by Peter Tieryas Liu

jhp52dfd4ab263f2Bald New World
by Peter Tieryas Liu
Perfect Edge, May 2014
229 pages / $16.95  Pre-order from Amazon
 

 

 

 

Having been thrilled by the imagination in his short story collection, Watering Heaven, I was excited to see Peter Tieryas Liu was taking on a larger work: his new novel Bald New World. The play in the title on the canonical dystopian work by Huxley only further stimulated my appetite.

How would it be handled? Would it be playful? Would it be strange? Would it be dystopian? Yes, yes to all those things (other than the one that isn’t a yes/no question):

I was eleven when everyone in the world lost their hair. I got up from bed, terrified to see that all my hair had fallen out. In the mirror, the uneven bumps on my head formed an alien tapestry that made me feel like I was staring at a stranger. I spotted a thick black mole above my ear that I’d never seen before and scratched it, only to find it wasn’t going away. Both of my parents were away on a business trip so I ran to my older sister, Kelly, hoping she knew what was wrong with me. I found her crying on the bathroom floor, clutching her own fallen hair. My eyes went to her scalp, an oddly shaped oval with protrusions jutting out. “What are you looking at?!” she demanded.

As the title suggests, everyone has mysteriously gone bald. One would hope that people would learn to live with baldness, since no one has any hair. However, we should all know human nature better than that by now. Superficial, vain, and capable of endless denial. There are riots, chaos. This goes hand in hand with the actual problems in the world: overpopulation, diminishing food supplies, wars over resources, and so on. Wig companies dominate the global economy.

As one would demand in a dystopian novel, life becomes even more hellish than it already is. Body modification, visits to the United States (though most of the book takes place in China) fraught with the almost certainty of being shot, North Korea kidnapping people from other countries to be slaves in forced labor camps, and more. The term ‘dystopian’ certainly fits.

Within all of this, we have Nick. Nick has spent his life trying to cut himself free from a horribly abusive family…trying to be free. Modernly, he’s a filmmaker:

After the African Wars ended, many of us wondered what we should do next. I took to making films with a fellow grunt, Larry Chao. He nearly got discharged from the army twenty times because he was always running off “in love” with some new girl he swore was “the One.” He wasn’t especially handsome, but had a jovial grin that made everyone feel welcome in his presence. Between his indefatigable exuberance and his easy- going nature inspired by an early bout of mutated typhoid that nearly killed him, his charm more than made up for his plump nose, small eyes, and fat lips. He had a suite of women who worshipped him. For my part, I never thought our lives would become so intertwined, our names would be synonymous with each other.

His friend and employer, Larry, is the heir to the world’s most powerful wig corporation. He’s also somewhat of a fuckup.

However, something particularly strange is going on. Larry may be in over his head, caught up in a conspiracy with far-reaching and possibly deadly consequences. At the heart may be the very secret behind why everyone went bald. Of course, he pulls Nick in. Things wouldn’t be very interesting if he didn’t:

He laughed. “Maybe I’m being a touch melodramatic. Beautiful women always do that to me. Let’s give it one more shot. This new film I was mentioning. It’ll be the biggest ever.”

“Can you give more details?”

“At first, I thought maybe I’d do a documentary about my family. Or maybe I’d make it into a film about a rich family with an idiot son who squandered everything. Would that be too cliché? I don’t want to be that idiot,” he said. “I’m starting to settle on one idea.”

“What is it?”

“I’ve always wanted to do an epic about the Baldification. Maybe call it Bald New World. Do a film about the people in it. It’ll be massive. I guarantee you. This’ll be the film that everyone notices.”

“No one’s figured out what exactly happened yet.”

“That’s what the businesses would like people to think,” Larry said. “What if I told you people like my father knew exactly what happened?

“What do you mean?”

“Well—”

Behind us, one of the factories exploded, blowing the plates off the table and knocking us both back. A second factory blew up, the fire blasting against our faces. My ears were ringing and the smoke made everything hazy. I heard a third boom but couldn’t tell where it was from. Sirens were ringing.

Bald New World is gripping and frightening. It filled with wonderfully speculative and exotic elements:

The humming sound was the first thing that struck me as I approached the glitzy lights and tall buildings that reminded me of Las Vegas, albeit with a much grungier facade. Firecrackers were going off, music blasted, and women in lingerie danced in a troupe. Drunks were passed out in the corners while other drunks were dancing as hard as they could. As I got closer, I saw the source of the humming. It was a massive glass cage filled with flies. Insects were everywhere. There were spider fights between female orb-weavers, roach races in elaborate tracks, and cater- pillar leaf-eating contests. Cricket fighting was also on display, and there were hundreds of simultaneous matches. The crickets were screeching like a war cry and obsessed crowds cheered for their favorites. Cricket pilots were at their booths, interfacing with their crickets through a neural feed, fighting with a degree of precision and endurance that would have been unthinkable decades ago. This was how I used to burn the long hours between shifts during the African Wars.

At the same time, the setting is just familiar enough that we can almost see the current world twistedly reflected within it. Dystopia doesn’t have the necessary frightening, compelling edge if it’s just some horrible place we can’t imagine ever being. It has to be more horrible than our world, but we must be shadowed constantly by the fleeting yet undeniable possibility that this may one day be where we have to try to live.

The fanciful aspects of Bald New World alone makes the book worth reading, but it’s the suspense and revelation that really kept me glued to the page. Something was going on and I wanted to know what that was. Want? Heck, I needed to know.

Dystopia has been done a lot, but no one has done it quite like Peter Tieryas Liu. I’d like to enthusiastically welcome Bald New World to the must-read dystopian canon. Old Aldous would be proud.

***

David S. Atkinson is the author of Bones Buried in the Dirt and the forthcoming The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (EAB Publishing, spring 2014). His writing appears in “Bartleby Snopes,” “Grey Sparrow Journal,” “Interrobang?! Magazine,” “Atticus Review,” and others. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/ and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.

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