For a human created by scientists, a childhood trapped underground is followed by an equally grim adulthood aboveground in this bleak fantasy, the author’s second novel (Cloud 8, 2003).
The two male scientists are murdered by a God-fearing mob that’s discovered their secret lab, but the embryo, in its aquarium tank, is rescued by government operatives. After birth he is studied by other scientists; his few happy moments come in a cage shared by Abigail, a gorilla who provides unconditional motherly love. At age five he’s transferred to an underground cell, one of a network that houses other scientifically conceived boys, and given a name, John Smith, and a roommate, Sterling. They will spend the next ten years underground, guarded by Men in White, as they receive a basic education and conditioning for life in society. John will be treated to some interactive television, allowing him to eat a traditional breakfast with a model Mom and Pop. But where are the girls? Sterling, more spirited than John, intends to find out. With John’s help they break out twice, but are recaptured. The third breakout is a full-fledged revolt; they emerge aboveground, where soldiers escort them to a small house. In due course John is driven to Mortarville, a ravaged industrial town. He becomes a security guard, is promoted to security director of a downtown mall and spends his days writing reports underground (again), part of “the world’s endless army of middle management hacks.” John finds a small ray of light in his neighbor, the ethereal Dora, but their relationship is not developed, and the clumsy ending (mayhem at the mall) offers no resolution. Bailie’s point in all this is that John’s mandatory childhood incarceration was an appropriate rehearsal for the prisons of choice of regular folks; his exotic conception was just a frill. It’s not exactly a dystopian vision.
The escapes, captures and riots are not much of a distraction from John’s dismaying passivity, which dooms the whole project.