Bald New World by Peter Tieryas Liu
Comparisons can be a very dangerous thing for an up-and-coming author, so when Peter Tieryas Liu played with the canonical dystopian work by science fiction master Aldous Huxley and titled his debut novel Bald New World, he was inviting arduous scrutiny simply by walking on what many consider sacred ground. Luckily for author and readers alike, Bald New World is one of the most exciting narratives to hit science fiction in a while. The novel is well written, takes places in a future that is truly unique, and delivers an outstanding exploration of vanity. The result of that combination is that all comparisons are quickly pushed aside and replaced by the kind of wonder and curiosity that keeps readers turning pages.
Bald New World takes place in a relatively near future in which all humans have suddenly gone bald for an unknown reason. In the aftermath of the worldwide follicular catastrophe, the owners of wig companies immediately become the richest and most powerful individuals on the planet. One of the beneficiaries of this socioeconomic change is Larry Chao, a young filmmaker and womanizer who inherited one of the largest wig companies in the world from his father. Larry uses his wealth to finance the films he makes with his best friend and cameraman Nicholas Guan, a man whose regular job is cleaning up war footage to make it more palatable for the audience. The two friends spend their time making movies and pursuing women, but when someone places bombs in two of Larry's main buildings shortly after a night out on the town with two ladies who were spies, the plot takes a dark twist than leads to Nicholas fighting for his life.
Bald New World is as strange as it is gripping. From the first page, Liu grabs the reader with sharp prose, humor, rich descriptions, and two characters that are interesting, both as individuals, and as one half of their friendship. Guan is caring and smart, and he plays the perfect wingman for Chao, whose wealth, love of women, quick wit, and even a special suit he uses to rescue workers from inside the burning buildings are somewhat reminiscent of the heroic protagonist of the Iron Man films, Tony Stark. Guan and Chao's travels and adventures offer a cinematic kind of comradeship that helps the reader establish rapport with them very early on. The relationship between the two characters is something that Liu crafted as carefully as he did each individual, and the writing has a way of reinforcing that throughout the narrative. A great example is one of Guan's descriptions of his friend:
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.
Borrowing elements from a plethora of genres that range from science fiction and bizarro to international thrillers and coming of age narratives, Bald New World offers the kind of variety of elements thatís lacking in most contemporary science fiction. The damaged landscapes are futuristic and clearly anchored in the unforgiving and dangerous dystopian aesthetic, but the places and spaces Liu builds inside his world also seem to bridge the gap between the technology-based future of most sci-fi stories and something akin to an homage to old wars and the look commonly associated with the steampunk genre.
Despite the multiplicity of ingredients used to put it together, what makes this novel stand out and deserving of attention is Liu's prose, which blends the author's distinctive vibrancy with an outlandish but striking combination of eloquence, weirdness, and elegance that takes this genre-friendly narrative and drops it at the center of literary fiction. By packing as much beauty as it does strangeness, Bald New World is dystopian literature that demands to be called stunning:
Beijing had become a city of vapors, a metropolis of neon calligraphy burning away the surrounding gas. Pollution had become a permanent fixture in the landscape, trapped by the surrounding mountains and aggravated by storms. Contours shines like trailing lights, buildings appearing permeable, shifting with the perspective. We veered past cars and streetlights suffering from identity crises. Bikers were waiting at a red light, jumpsuits and WWI gas masks protecting their lungs from contamination. Store names floated in mid-air, Mandarin phrases wandered the alleys like unforgiven spirits, and a sentence cried for redemption, crucified in mist.
Besides the rich world-building and fast pace, Bald New World is deeper than its peculiar concept might suggest. The narrative begins as a fusion of adventure story and smart sci-fi thriller, but quickly morphs into an outstanding deconstruction of self, vanity, beauty, and individuality, among other things. The first clear sign of the author's critical agenda comes from the main premise itself: the most important commodity is fake hair because we consider it important and suddenly no one has it. While turning wig companies into the owners of the new world is a hilarious and surreal idea, it points to the fact that beauty, and the changing trends (en)forced by it, are the big motors behind the world's economy. The commodification of wigs follows the same principles as any other product would, but by choosing a replacement for something as normal as hair as the focus of the process, the author accomplishes two things: shining a light on the ludicrousness of most commodified goods and their markets and showing that anything can undergo the same process if a sudden "need" arises, or is created.
Between religious zealots torturing Nicholas and the way war is sanitized for the masses, there's plenty of intelligent commentary in Liu's work. However, one of the beautiful things about Bald New World is that it achieves a balance between its smart discourse and the pure entertainment value readers have come to expect from the genres it blends together.
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.
Liu fully embraces his cultural experience as an Asian American and explores international canons of beauty and the philosophy of the self while giving readers a globetrotting story with an undeniable international flavor and plenty of exoticness. Bald New World tackles dystopian science fiction with a fresh voice and plenty of smarts and succeeds brilliantly because it makes the genre feel like something new and exciting. This is intelligence wrapped in pulp. In fact, this book manages to accomplish something extraordinarily rare for a debut novel: it earns Liu a spot on the list of must-read dystopian novels and puts him next to writers like Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick. This one will definitely be making the lists as one of the best science fiction novels of the year, and it deserves to be at or near the top of all of them.
Bald New World by Peter Tieryas Liu