A flawed but riveting venture into science-fiction territory for Theroux, who once again uses eccentric characters and a jolting plot to dramatize a weighty philosophical theme. Here the issue is the nature of freedom. In a future America ravaged by pollution, New York remains a fortress of wealth and power inhabited by supposedly free Owners who are, in fact, imprisoned by their security devices. On New Year's Eve, eight Owners take a pleasure trip to the O-Zone (formerly the Ozarks), a barren off-limits area devastated by a nuclear spill. There they encounter ""aliens,"" people living outside the approved social network. This unexpected meeting forever changes the lives of all involved. Hooper Allbright, wealthiest of the Owners, falls in love with an alien girl. Hardy Allbright schemes to cover the O-Zone in asphalt. Gun-happy Willis Murdick intensifies his nighttime hunting for ""starkies,"" ""skellies,"" ""roaches"" and other aliens. Moura Allbright, Hardy's wife, seeks out a lover from her past. Eventually Hooper and his nephew Fisher, a 15-year-old spoiled genius (crafted from the same day as the inventor-protagonist of Theroux's The Mosquito Coast), return to the O-Zone. There Hooper abducts his beloved child-woman, Bligh, and in retaliation Fisher is kidnapped by the aliens. Predictably, Fisher learns to admire the rugged alien life-style, while Bligh, spirited to the crystal towers of New York, enjoys painting her toenails and riding in helicopters. In the end, most of the Owners achieve their secret goal, be it puppy love, sexual frenzy, or death. The concept of the decadent rich inhabiting enclaves in a blasted landscape is a science-fiction clichÃ‰. Theroux adds no new twists to the concept, but his vivid execution reinvigorates an old idea. Similarly, although most of his characters pop warm from the mold--the gung-ho survivalist, the wise and wily alien leader--their obsessions, sins, and innocence seem genuine. And the sense of sadness imbuing the book--reminiscent of Joseph Conrad, Robert Stone, and others who deal in tragic lives--lingers long afterward. A long book both bloody and wistful--a rare combination. Not Theroux's best, but a substantial offering.