C. J. Hopkins, an American playwright residing in Berlin, writes a column of political commentary which appears in various places on the Internet. I encountered his work on unz.com, a rogue site which publishes writers from all over the spectrum, many of whom have been banned and censored elsewhere. I enjoy Hopkins’ maverick viewpoint and biting satire, so when he announced his new novel Zone 23, I immediately bought a copy. It’s a remarkable book about which I have mixed feelings. One thing for certain, it’s not dull.
Zone 23 takes place 600 years in the future in a bizarre dystopia that seems all too plausible. All the nations of the world have merged into the United Territories, which are ruled by a handful of giant corporations. English is the universal language and place names have given way to numbers, such as Region 120. The majority of the population, known as “Normals” are constantly sedated by psychiatric drugs and entranced by their “all in one” electronic devices. Individuality is a thing of the past. Those under 30 have been genetically engineered to remove aggression and strong emotion, and are known as “Clears.” They lead a smiling “Stepford Wives” existence.
Those few people who can’t or won’t conform are diagnosed with Antisocial Disorder and sentenced to live in a Quarantine Zone such as the titular 23. These are urban ghettos reminiscent of Warsaw under the Nazis or Gaza in the current day. Their inhabitants survive in squalor on a meager stipend from the ruling Corporation. They rape and murder each other with impunity but if they try to rebel the authorities send kill teams and missile strikes to eliminate the perpetrators plus their families and neighbors.
As grim as this book sounds, it is often laugh-out-loud funny. That’s because the foundations of this future world are the flaws of our current society taken to their logical conclusions. The Normals, despite their relative affluence and longevity, are slaves to the crowd. They struggle to keep up with the latest “content” on their electronic devices and buy the newest cool products from giant chains like CRS, VR Universe, and Big Buy Basement, all purchased on credit.
The story follows two main characters. The first is Taylor Byrd, a Class 3 Antisocial who has lived his entire life in Zone 23. He’s a violent alcoholic with one redeeming quality – he only kills those who deserve it. His problems begin when he accidentally impregnates his girlfriend Cassandra. Abortion is not an option, being highly illegal and dangerous. Yet giving birth in the Zone is also forbidden and the authorities will “disappear” both mothers and babies.
The story’s second protagonist is a medical technician named Valentina Briggs who lives in the posh suburbs outside Zone 23. She and her husband are expecting their first baby, a genetically enhanced “Clear.” Despite her apparently ideal life, Valentina is terrified of having a mental breakdown like her mother did, a “crime” which would end her life as a Normal. She also fears that the fetus growing inside her is the agent of some sinister conspiracy.
Acting independently, both characters attempt to contact a shadowy terrorist group called the NIN (Nihilist International Network.) Valentina wants to escape her stultifying existence and fight the evil “IT” which is using her body to propagate a new race. Taylor needs their help to smuggle Cassandra’s baby out of the Zone and to the ungoverned lands south of the 40th parallel (which global warming has rendered inhospitable) where it might have a chance of survival. Taylor and Valentina blunder from one disaster to another as they pursue their goals to the story’s devastating climax.
As I said at the opening, I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s a brilliant dystopian satire worthy of a place alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. I also enjoyed Hopkins’ thinly veiled mockery of our current society. Unfortunately, the author’s humorous asides often stop the action, which I found frustrating. Furthermore, the graphic violence was a bit much for me, especially a scene where one character performs a “do it yourself” surgery. I’m not that sensitive, but it left me with a queasy stomach. The book’s imaginative and timely concept would merit a perfect score if not for these problems. I give Zone 23 4.5 out of 5 stars and strongly recommend it to mature, politically engaged readers who can handle its brutal storyline.