O-Zone by Paul Theroux

The story is set in a slightly Blade Runner-esqe future. New York is a sealed city. Not physically sealed, but in the Orwellian sense – a place of constant ID checks, where the rich (known as Owners) can feel safe in their tower blocks and where aliens (illegals) are hunted down and expelled or killed. The sky is abuzz with jet-rotors, people walk the streets in masks because the air is dirty. It’s not what we would call normal life, but it’s normal to the citizens because it’s all they’ve ever known – until, that is, a rich family known as the Allbrights gets hold of a permit to fly to a place known as O-Zone, where they intend to have a New Year’s party. O-Zone is an abandoned city where nuclear waste was once stored in underground caverns. Due to a leak, the whole area became contaminated. Now, many years later, it is believed that no one lives in O-Zone. The Allbrights and their friends fly there in their jet-rotors, and discover that they are not alone.

The book is really about how this trip changes the Owners. They begin the story as incredible cowards, but by the end some of them are transformed – to the point where they cannot regard their heavily controlled indoor lives of luxury in quite the same way. Central to the story is the kidnapping of a young alien by an Owner, and the kidnapping of a young Owner by a group of aliens. This allows the author to explore the themes of racial prejudice, culture, wealth, poverty, freedom. You can tell this is a book written by a travel author. The mode of transport by jet-rotor allows Theroux to provide commentary on landscapes and cultures that are probably mirrors of some of his own experiences. We go from the extravagant waste of New York City to the poverty of Africa, and other locales. A great deal of the book is spent inside the heads of the protagonists, examining their motivations and attitudes. If you care about the author’s subtext, you’ll get a lot from this book, but if you’re looking for an exciting sci-fi story, you’ll likely be disappointed. There’s not really much drama in the story, and that’s its chief weakness. I get the feeling that Theroux had things he wanted to say, and he constructed a loose narrative around this desire.

Interesting novel, but much too long and drawn out for what little drama unfolds across its five-hundred pages.