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Richard Eder

O-Zone by Paul Theroux (Putnam's: $19.95; 527 pp.)

September 21, 1986|Richard Eder

A lthough neither private nor, probably, fine, the future is like Andrew Marvell's grave: a place where none do embrace.

This is to suggest the particular difficulty of prophetic or science fiction. As in extra-planetary exploration, the life needs artificial supports: dried food, an air supply, waste disposal.

It takes a special art to populate this future with believable people and real emotions. Messages are easy, and so is hardware. Sex, as a form of hardware, is not difficult. Love is harder. A sense of urgency, as in "1984," or of fantasy, as in the work of most science fiction masters, is required.

And again, as with space travel, there is a limited time over which those life systems can be maintained. Orwell's Winston Smith moves us by his humanity as well as by his message, but he would have faded over an additional hundred pages. J. M. Ballard, Arthur Clarke and Aldous Huxley of "Brave New World" wrote short. Oracles need brevity. I can't imagine a successful science-fiction equivalent of "Gone With the Wind." Nor, of course, a "Remembrance of Things Future."

A length that can't be sustained is one of the problems with Paul Theroux's venture into futurist fiction, "O-Zone." There are others, unfortunately; some of them fundamental. But Theroux has some interesting things to say in his vision of a future and dismal America. It is prophecy as comment about how we live now. With more compression, the strength of the message would have shown up better, and the weakness of the fiction might have been less apparent.

Theroux's vision of a not-so-distant America is shrewder in concept than in detail. The author, who has written with knowledge and penetration about the Third World, among other things, installs a third world into our own country.

It is a devastated country; devastated not by war but by technology run wild. With computers and other infinitely complex electronic gadgetry, wealth can be produced and managed by a small elite, known as the Owners. Under the Owners are a kind of Praetorian guard of minor technicians and service personnel, and a monstrous array of security forces, public and private.

The Owners--and here Theroux's details are rather tired--live in enclosed complexes in walled cities. No outsider can get in without passing through numerous security checks and running the risk of arrest or worse.

The Owners zip about in their own helicopters, dart off for luxurious vacations in Africa, patronize fertility clinics that are actually brothels, and take part in controlled comas--more or less the equivalent of present-day jogging. They are secure, privileged, decadent and dead.

Outside the enclaves is wilderness. Impoverished bands of Aliens roam throughout; some of whom are predatory and violent, while others simply scavenge and hunt. The Owners' security forces keep them down and out; and wilder para-security groups--vigilantes--hunt them down and kill them for the pleasure of it.

It is an America of Us and Them. Technology, used for domination, has not only produced this Hell, but it has botched the job. A great part of the Southeast, around the Ozarks, has been contaminated by massive leaks from nuclear waste dumps. The O-Zone is sealed off; the Aliens who live there can't leave, and nobody else can go in.

Of course, in a society of such grimly defended privilege, there are privileged exceptions. One of those is a powerful technocrat named Hardy. Hardy builds huge asphalt mountains in remote areas. Ostensibly, through a heat convection process, they serve to make rain. In fact, their purpose is to soak up the overproduction of the giant oil company that virtually runs the government.

Under cover of a pleasure safari, Hardy takes a helicopter into O-Zone with a group of companions. Among those are Hardy's brother, Hooper, the amiable and very rich owner of a chain of stores; Hardy's wife, Moura, and Fisher, an adolescent computer freak who is Moura's son by an anonymous contact at one of the fertility clinics.

The expedition is inconclusive, and Theroux handles it without much focus. Only after it is over do the main strands of the story emerge. In different ways, they all involve efforts to escape the gilded constriction of the Owners' world.

Hooper's version is a self-indulgent flight inward. He falls in love with a 15-year-old girl, Bligh, whom he spots running with a band of ragged Aliens in O-Zone. "She had nothing," he reflects, "and he had never had nothing." Smitten by poverty-chic, he kidnaps her, without objection, and takes her home. They live a pedophiliac idyll and presumably will be happy forever and ever. It is lushly told and quite inane.

Only slightly less wobbly is Moura's decision to renounce her Owner's status and seek out the father of Fisher, who is living as an Alien handyman in a blighted zone outside Los Angeles. They too have their idyll, a rougher one, and conveyed largely through Moura's breathy, soap-operatic reflections.

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