Like José Saramago’s Blindness or George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Peter Tieryas Liu’s science-fiction novel, Bald New World, is a story involving a plague that isn’t about the plague. And yet it is the plague that may draw you in at first, as it did for me. Overnight, everyone in the world goes bald. What happens next?
In a novel where characters utter terms like the “Great Baldification” without irony, one might consider the pandemic here to be an affliction of comically low stakes. So what if everyone is bald? What’s the worst that could happen, more scalp sunburns? Fortunately, Liu seems to share Romero’s belief that what is interesting is not the plague itself but people’s reaction to it. Bald New World proposes that the deadliest infection on humankind will not be a weaponized superflu or radioactive contamination but rather, a pervading thought: We aren’t in control of our lives.
“What if the earth collapses tomorrow?” asks Larry Chao, the president of the world’s leading wig company (fake hair being one of the most valuable commodities post-Baldification). “What if a thousand-year winter arrives? What if some plague wipes out half of humanity?” These are all possibilities in a world where everyone loses their hair and no one knows why. Though the characters do not suffer through a natural disaster worse than baldness, the world falls apart anyway. Street violence so prevalent people have to wear full body armor in public, an “African War,” corporate warfare, media manipulation, an FDA owned by a fast-food chain, and the Huxley-reminiscent “image facilitation” surgery that makes people look either anonymous or like a spitting image of their favorite celebrity—and this is just where we begin.
The narrator is Nick Guan, a young man living in Beijing who is haunted by his traumatic past in America. A victim of abuse at the hands of his parents, Nick carries his childhood trauma wherever he goes, and it ultimately contributes to the dissolution of his marriage and his American Dream. He finds his only “family” in his best friend Larry Chao, the girl-crazy heir of a Chinese wig empire. Nick, who once shot sanitized, digitally modified war footage, now works as a cinematographer for Larry’s hard-hitting, political movies that no one watches—this, on top of accompanying Larry to romantic dates with potential North Korean spies.
The interaction between the two brings to mind Murakami’s characters, with Nick playing the reflective straight man to Larry’s wild provocateur. The narration, too, carries a Murakami-like whimsy, even in the face of horrifying developments. This juxtaposition can be strangely compelling: Larry commenting on the beauty of his German car on the way to see to his exploded factory, or Nick taking a moment, in the middle of a fight with a murderous, masturbating butler, to cringe at the thought of where the butler’s hands have been. Farfetched as these moments are, Bald New World would be a lesser book without them.
As the story progresses, Nick plays a bigger role in the plot, which begins to assume characteristics of a mystery or detective novel. His suffering is compounded, and suddenly the past doesn’t seem too bad compared to his present predicaments. The novel picks up speed threefold in the second half, and some of the jumps Liu makes in order to move Nick from location to location or to introduce him to an important character feel a little tenuous. Nevertheless, the story finds its reins and Liu delivers a stunning ending, one fit for the heavy, incisive questions he raises throughout the book.
Though Bald New World is one of the most original science fiction books I have read in a while, Liu’s writing on the sentence level is far from ambitious. And maybe it doesn’t need to be. The book is a fast read largely because Liu’s prose is colloquial and generally concise, but we also get moments of exposition rendered through clunky dialogue and uninspired, vague sentences such as, “Rainy days were the worst as everyone’s clothes and shoes were wet.”
Bald New World is closer to popcorn post-apocalypse than Cormac McCarthy apocalypse, and it doesn’t aspire to the beauty of Ursula K. LeGuin’s language. But every chapter is entertaining, and for each slight misstep in the writing, there is a revelatory moment to make up for it. Here is one such wonderful moment, where Nick contemplates killing his captor, revealing in the process his twisted logic on what constitutes “killing a man”:
I’d never killed a man. Even during the wars, most of the killing was done by drones and machines. In Los Angeles, where gun fights were common, gun groups had gotten the government to change laws so that if you fired at people wearing armor, it was considered aggravated assault rather than attempted murder. Many of my acquaintances had been brought up on aggravated assault charges, but I didn’t have a mark. Murdering someone was against everything I believed.
Bald New World is Peter Tieryas Liu’s first novel (he has published a short story collection, Watering Heaven). Aside from writing, he works as a VFX artist for films and a technical writer for LucasArts, the video game division of LucasFilm. Also, as an Asian American writing science fiction, he is a voice that is severely underrepresented in the genre. Delving into a project like Bald New World, with its off-the-wall premise and its non-mainstream cast of characters, is certainly a commercial risk, but Liu has proceeded with confidence, humor, and prescience. The world of books is richer with his inclusion.
Bald New World, by Peter Tieryas Liu. Perfect Edge Books. 229 pages. $16.95, paper.
Simon Han’s writing has appeared in Narrative Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. He is an MFA candidate at Vanderbilt University, where he also serves as head fiction editor for Nashville Review.