There are a few things to address right off the bat in regard to Bald New World. Yes, the title is a direct Aldous Huxley reference. Yes, it is a science fiction dystopia. And yes, everyone in the book is bald.
It is, strictly speaking, a book exploring the premise of “What if the whole world suddenly became bald?” and because of that, there’s a certain absurdist vibe that pervades the entire novel. The most influential people are the owners of wig companies and the man who plays Jesus the General on TV. Travel from L.A. to China takes two hours, but getting through customs takes three. Plastic surgery has progressed so far that, for a hundred-million-dollar fee, anyone can look like Marilyn Monroe.
The book remains grounded by focusing on protagonist Nick Guan’s emotional progression: it could almost be considered a coming-of-age novel, despite Nick’s adulthood. When his best friend is killed in front of him, Nick must evade the murderers and go on the run. He stumbles into a series of increasingly dangerous misadventures, including but not limited to, encounters with beautiful but deadly spies, capture and torture by religious zealots, and indentured servitude to a wayward gambler.
In his indentured servitude, Nick is made to fight crickets to win his freedom. Cricket fighting in this world is done by psychically linking to the insect and melding minds, so that the fighter in essence becomes the cricket. When the link goes awry, the two minds can become entangled: “Why couldn’t I fly? Why couldn’t I move? My thorax was cemented to the floor. I tried to sense out with my antennae but they’d been chopped off.” Nick and the reader experience the brutality of cricket fighting from a first person point of view, as Nick becomes increasingly intertwined with the mind of the crickets.
When Nick is rescued and finally manages to return home, he unravels a conspiracy that could change the face (and scalp) of the entire world. Nick Guan, the perennial follower, must grow up and make choices that will shape his world’s future. In this way, the premise develops past the point of thought experiment and becomes a fully realized story about what it takes to survive, and how to build one’s own identity.
That said, this book is not for everyone. It is very violent, and that’s part of the point. Nick’s first job was to sanitize wartime footage: “Did one of the scout ships record a scene that was too bloody? I brought out my digital brushstrokes so that limbs could be replaced real-time, scars mended, and disasters contained.” The author makes a point to emphasize how separated society is from the actual consequences of violence, despite being surrounded by it. Nick, whose father was abusive to him as a child, is already aware of the damage of real violence, and that makes his experience of it in adulthood all the more devastating.
A Bald New World is a satirical, surreal adventure, set in a world not so terribly different from our own. In this way, it follows in the traditions of science fiction by aiming pointed commentary at our own society’s obsession with celebrity, vanity, and violence, with a sprinkling of environmental commentary as well. Science fiction — particularly dystopic science fiction — does its best work when it is used to explore the possible disastrous paths we have already laid out for ourselves. It is also refreshing, in a market saturated with young adult dystopias, to see an unapologetically adult work in the genre.
A recommended read for fans of Blade Runner and Quentin Tarantino, or anyone looking for an original, incisive piece of science fiction.
Reviewed by Arielle Yarwood
Perfect Edge Books
May 30, 2014