“Zone 23” is, quite frankly, unlike any other dystopian novel I have ever read. Written as a satirical version of utopia, this novel follows two, well, mostly two, people who are having their eyes opened, their thoughts expanded, and are seeing the world for what it truly is—maybe—for the first time in their lives, or at least a very long time. We follow Taylor who lives out in the Zone, outcast from society as he is deemed undesirable (more on that in a minute) and Valentina, who just so desperately wants to be Normal and to have a Normal baby and to live her Normal life—there is a reason for the caps. The narrative voice of this novel is just wonderful and, really, that’s what you’d read this book for: Hopkins satirical narration. Because otherwise the plot of this book is pretty simplistic and wouldn’t necessitate the 500 pages it takes to complete this story. However, this is an EXTREMELY good read, albeit a difficult one.
So let’s start with some of the most obvious reasons why it’s a difficult read, which come in the form of my trigger warnings. There is a lot of swearing in this book (which I like but just throwing it out there), violence (some of which is more graphic then others, while other instances are unnervingly clinical), instances of rape or implied rape, and abortion. All of these things are done with care and with the story in mind so they never felt out of place, but be forewarned in case you are sensitive to any of these things while reading.
Now, the other reason why it’s a difficult read is because of how the story meanders. See, while there are character focal points in the book who we get the perspective of as they navigate their world and the challenges they face, they aren’t necessarily the most important part of the story. That lays in how Hopkins world—our world as it is set on futuristic Earth—came to be. You see, the true point of the story is to paint a picture of what happens when we as a species have nothing left to fight, conquer, or destroy and then we turn all that remaining desire for destruction on to ourselves in the form of self-loathing. But we as people, don’t like feeling bad for any reason, which is obviously true today. So once we’ve taken over everything and bombed our natural resources to smithereens, and destroyed the middle class entirely, we are desperate to remove that guilt, or any negative feeling we may have. Everyone just wants to be Normal. But to be Normal, you can’t have any extremes, good or bad. Which would make something as physically pleasurable as sex about as good as shopping and finding a good pair of genes. Everything is equally just fine. In order to do that, our advanced society drills down to genetics—it’s essentially eugenics—and finds a way to remove anything that would make people question whether or not something was ok, if things were fine, if they were happy, or just how messed up the world has become. It’s a fascinating study and something that is oh so terrifying for you can see it happening for real at some point in the future. But Hopkins spends A TON of time on those points, of painting that picture, that for every couple of paragraphs of the “plot” moving forward or action, or even dialogue, you have roughly three pages of world building exposition.
But it’s within those long winded narratives that you really delve deep into Taylor and Valentina’s psyches and discover a pair of tragic anti-heroes and see their violent struggle to remain human, even though those emotions that make us human are now considered a death sentence and cast you out into the Zone (where Taylor has been his whole life) where most people don’t tend to survive past the age of 40. Normally with that much exposition I get frustrated or end up disliking the book, definitely not the case here! I ADORED (which is weird to say because this is not a happy story) how a society that’s painted as a utopian is anything but, how any type of dissent and non-conformity is desperately being genetically modified or drugged out of people as its considered “lass than” human. Hopkins narration is often hilarious and heartbreaking when portraying his characters and the communities they inhabit. So while the “plot” took a while to get where it was going, and I was a bit disappointed with the books ending, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride! This is an easy 5 stars for me and I’ll be keeping my eyes on Hopkins for more novels in the future!
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