REVIEW: Bald New World by Peter Tieryas Liu
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by Kyle Muntz
Bald New World is sort of like a Haruki Murakami novel set in a future reminiscent of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash… where everyone is bald. At the same time, it’s really nothing like that. The debut novel from Peter Tieryas Liu, this book is a complete original, and always fun to read. It’s a very strange book with a lot of heart, with a strong eye for both character and narrative, and overflowing with great ideas.
The focus of the novel is on two friends: Larry Chao, a talented but obscure filmmaker who also happens to own the biggest wig company in a world with no hair; and the narrator Nick Guan, Larry’s best friend and professional cameraman. It’s a story equally about their friendship and their world — one where it’s impossible to go outside in LA without body armor and the most popular show is about Jesus killing people as a war hero.
In the tradition of Huxley’s <em>Brave New World, it’s</em> a place seething with capitalism
, where everything is artificial and everything can be sold… but especially hair.
The first act takes us through both China and the warzone of the United States, as Nick and Larry become involved with a pair of beautiful North Korean spies. There’s a relaxed pace to the early novel that brings the reader smoothly into the world, with details that tend to be funny as often as they’re grotesque. The slower pace also leaves lots of space for the characters to breathe, and really brings the friendship between Larry and Nick to life. Unlike Nick, Larry is a compulsive womanizer and sort of cartoonish guy (who I imagine looking like a younger version of Ah Ping from Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love), which ultimately causes problems for both of them. When Larry’s wig company is attacked — presumably by a rival wig company — and Nick is abducted, it sets in motion a chain of events that involves religious fanatics, fighting crickets, murderous butlers, genetic experiments, and all ends with a crowd of naked people in LA.
If the early novel is about Larry, the rest is about Nick. One of the most interesting narrators in recent fiction, Nick is a survivor of abuse from a low-income family, overcoming psychological damage that ultimately ruined his marriage; a veteran of “The African wars”; and distinguished cricket fighter. Bald New World is an ambitious book despite being fairly short, but it’s also one that might have been potentially alienating. Especially with how strange things get at times, having such a strong narrator holds the book together. Nick is intensely human and relatable, and ultimately his character might be the strongest element of the book.
As a first novel, there are some growing pains — particularly the shifts in the pacing, and a certain episodic feel to parts of the narrative. Around the middle there’s a shift that might alienate certain readers, where the book suddenly becomes a high-octane romp. The two halves do feel very separate from each other, but the transition is natural (or, to try to avoid spoilers, jarring in the best possible way). The book ends in a place very different from where it began, but it’s a great journey getting there, and seeing it transform is part of the fun.
On some level <em>Bald New World</em> functions as a gallery of images and ideas, but deeply rooted in both character and narrative.
Unlike Watering Heaven, Tieryas’s debut collection (which drew heavily on magical realism and Chinese mythology), Bald New World is a science fiction novel with heavy elements of satire taken to the point of absurdism. There are also tons of easter eggs for anyone familiar with video games and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, plus a torture scene worthy of Ian Banks. Noticeably though, there’s a tonal difference from most SF, as Tieryas’ style still has all the emotional resonance of Watering Heaven, and the book is extremely friendly to people who don’t read science fiction often.
Also, did I mention everyone is bald?
by Peter Tieryas Liu