Old-time America, the eugenics movement, and Lovecraftian horror get surgically grafted in David Nickle’s first solo novel, with disturbing results.
Title: Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism
Author: David Nickle
ISBN: 1926851110, 978-1926851112
First published: 2011.
In 1911, the young survivor of a small-town plague and his Eugenicist aunt make their way to a Utopian community founded by a wealthy industrialist (such things still existed in early twentieth century America). Gradually, we realize a conspiracy is afoot, involving the industrialist, a slightly crazed doctor, another doctor who has escaped a lynching, Pinkerton Agents, hill people, an inbred clan—and something not quite human.
The strong opening puts us at the scene of a lynching in progress. The targets are an Afro-American doctor and an alleged rapist. We learn that the things “that loitered and whistled and kicked at the mud on this dark hillside in northern Idaho… were not ghosts, nor were they devils, nor duppies, nor spectral things of any kind”(13). They’re wannabee Klansmen with ropes. Yet the supposed rapist himself doesn’t quite seem human, and the doctor has an hallucinatory experience. Both hint that this won’t be strictly mimetic fiction. Something less commonplace and even more dangerous than ignorance and prejudice haunts the settlement. We uncover pieces of the plot in conspiratorial whispers and mysterious doings. The suspense is considerable. Eutopia develops into a kin of the conspiracy thriller, and the story veers in many directions, but it held my interest to the end.
More an observation:
A writer takes a chance juxtaposing real-world horror with invented boogeymen. We have in this book both a lynching and a plague. Several characters express and act on the most disturbing of eugenic principles. All of these things have happened, and some readers may have a hard time reconciling them with the dark-ride mystery at the novel’s center. The clash of elements, at times, jarred me, but I’m more impressed with how often Eutopia succeeds.
Originality: 4/6 The story owes a substantial debt to Lovecraft. Nickle’s views on eugenics and race differ sharply from those that informed many of Lovecraft’s stories, and the results, like Nickle’s style, are his own.
Imagery: 6/6 Nickle shows with clarity both realistic settings and the more bizarre corners of his fictional world. I would quote some of the medical details here, but they’re really rather disturbing. Be warned, and read the book.
Story: 5/6 Nickles has scribed a gripping story with a number of fleshy layers.
Characterization: 4/6. I found the characters believable, but not memorable. Our protagonists, Jason and Andrew endure; I suppose people in their positions, with their backgrounds, would. The good rustic folk were too obviously, well, just good rustic folk, but the story does not really allow them to be developed, and I could accept the limitation. Certain other rural dwellers also had limitations placed upon them by the story, and I have no quarrel there, either. But, even granting that our two main human villains act under certain influences, they came a little too close to comic-book villainy, especially in their latter appearances. I suppose, however, ideologues can.
Emotional Response: 5/6.
Editing: 5/6. Conspiracy thrillers, science fiction, and horror all must make their worlds understandable. As a result, such books often get bogged down in explanation and exposition. Nickle’s book juggles all three of these genres, and in the second half, he does not entirely overcome this difficulty. Overall, however, he writes effectively, with images often graphic but not gratuitous, and I admire his prose style.
Overall score: 5/6 Blind faith and believer’s ecstasy– whether based in religion or secular social movements– come under examination. Sometimes, the cure for social ills can be a disease itself. I recommend Eutopia to readers of horror and dark fantasy– though the stronger portions will not suit all tastes, and the ending will leave some readers dissatisfied.
Petty Observation: While the use of “disrespect” as a verb has a long history, its widespread use as a verb is very recent, and it jumped out at me in a novel set one hundred years ago. It felt anachronistic.
Yes, as a matter of fact, I can imagine David Nickle saying, “yeah, so sue me.”
In total, Eutopia receives 34/42
Notes: Poul Anderson and Alan Jacobs also have written novellas with the title “Eutopia.”