Review: Bald New World, by Peter Tieryas Liu

18760990>>Published: May 2014

>>Finally got around to it: July 2015

I don’t want to blame everything bad that happened on the Great Baldification as it came to be known. But it was the beginning of a lot of social change in the world. Marriages broke up at ten times the normal rate and my parents ended up getting divorced two months after the Baldification. Maybe it was strain from endless fights or that they never liked each other much to begin with. I never heard from my biological father after the divorce. My biological mother dropped me off permanently with Cousin Baochai so that she could pursue her dream of being a travel blogger. My sister, Kelly, going against the trend, married her rap star wanna-be boyfriend and I rarely saw her again after that.

Our economy regressed from disastrous to beyond redemption. Accelerated resource depletion forced countries into a war over Africa even though we were technically all part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force. Unemployment rates were at 56% in the States (though official reports had it at 5.5%), so soldiering was the only chance for a career most of our generation had. I signed up for the army and was assigned to the media department because of my passions for cameras despite all the combat training they gave me.

***

With a title that evokes Huxley’s science fiction classic, Liu’s debut novel Bald New World is aiming for a high bar right out of the gate. Whether it comes close to that bar or sails painfully under will depend largely on one’s own tastes and whether or not you like to have your stories told to you from a distance, or whether you prefer to actually feel involved in the narrative. Personally, this book didn’t even get off the ground before tripping over its feet and crashing face-first into the dirt. But let’s try and pull this apart anyway.

The story follows Nicholas Guan, a thirty-six-year-old Chinese-Korean man raised in the United States, whose job is “photographing—or beautifying—baldness.” As we meet Nicholas, it was been twenty-five years since the Great Baldification—when one night, as if an intervention from God itself, every man, woman, and child on the planet lost their hair. And not only did they lose their hair, but no new hair is grown, either. It’s a little like Children of Men in that the explanation as to why or how this has happened runs a distant second to simply examining the ways in which this event changed and continues to change the world, creating new industries, indeed new dynasties out of the world’s largest wig manufacturers. Because hair, naturally, has become one of society’s greatest luxuries.

Nicholas’s best friend is Larry Chao. As the owner of one such wig manufacturer, Larry is one of the wealthiest men in the world. And how does he spend his money and free time? Making “pointless movies throughout China about tragically dumb characters” with his good pal Nicholas. But when Larry is killed one night, Nicholas is forced down a dark path, along which he will discover what makes his hairless world tick.

Conceptually, this sounds right up my alley; taken as just its jacket copy, Bald New World sounds both engaging and unique. Its problems rest not with ideas, however, but with how they’re executed. At the top level, this book suffers from one of my largest pet peeves—it tells you its world rather than showing it. We’re given snippets of content here or there, like how it’s too dangerous to even go outside in Los Angeles without wearing body armour, but at no point do we really experience this ourselves. We’re told about how fish used to be fresh as if it’s a recent news article rather than just discussing the state of farm-raised fish. We’re given details about the shit world economy, but never does it feel like an impediment to Nicholas or anyone around him. These are but small examples; however, there are enough throughout the novel that I finished with the feeling that I’d been given an outline for a world, filled with some fairly interesting ideas, but had them dictated to me point-form rather than actually experiencing them as just another element existing within the author’s creation.

Shit, I think Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha has spoiled me forever on this. It’s not enough for me now to be told of a world; I need to experience it, to feel as if my characters are experiencing it as well, and not standing there remarking on it as if to a tourist accompanying them on their journey. Otherwise, the world isn’t a world; it’s an academic exercise.

The novel suffers equally from a narrative standpoint. Its chapters feel strung together with bland prose like an exquisite corpse of literary prompts—from filmmaking to North Korean spies to religious extremism and captivity and mind-control cricket fights. In short, there’s no real through-line to anything that happens in Liu’s narrative. On some level there’s an examination going on of shifting beauty standards and the world evolving around them, but without interesting characters with adequate depth/growth—of which there isn’t much—its overarching thesis falls flat.

I did appreciate some of the smaller aesthetic elements throughout, such as how video game music is treated as a mainstream pleasure and not merely an affectation of a small subculture, but in general I found Bald New World to be an unsatisfying slog that took me far longer to read than it should have. A lot happens on a conceptual level, but none of it sticks—there’s nothing human anchoring the characters or whatever ideology the author hoped to instil. In the end, I’m left thinking this would have made a fantastic short story, but there just isn’t enough content here to satisfy.

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