An ingenious and unsettling dystopian romance from the surrealist wâ€ nderkind who has in a scant five years produced five aggressively original works of fiction (As She Climbed Across the Table, 1997, etc.). The story begins on Earth--in Brooklyn, in fact--in a future transfigured by some unspecified (seemingly nuclear) catastrophe. The ozone layer is only a memory, people travel underground in private ""subway cars,"" and beachgoers can tolerate the sun only when enclosed in protective portable ""tents."" These and similar phenomena emerge in some brilliantly managed expository scenes focussed on teenaged Pella Marsh and her two younger brothers as they endure the loss of their mother to a brain tumor and their removal (by father Clement, a defeated politician) to another planet. Arriving at a ""new settlement"" on the environmentally friendly Planet of the Archbuilders, the Marshalls gradually assimilate into a society of fugitive earthlings who coexist uneasily with their mysterious hosts. The Arehbuilders, seemingly equal parts human, animal, and vegetable, pose a disturbing riddle: Are they benign protective beings evolved beyond humans (some of whom argue that they're only the ""rubble"" left behind by their more adventurous interstellar-explorer counterparts)? Or are these passive ""aliens"" a variety of lotus-eaters whose resignation to their stripped-down ""planet"" lulls their human neighbors into inert compliance with its norms? The possibilities are cleverly explored through a pleasingly melodramatic storyline that satisfies our expectations without overexplaining, and through a profusion of grimly comic details picturing life (or the imitation of it) in this bizarre new world. And Lethem's people are fully as real as his locale seems unreal. The protagonist Pella, a sturdy girl-woman altogether equal to the tests she undergoes, is especially memorable. Wonderful stuff. One waits eagerly to learn where Lethem will take us next.