Eutopia: a Novel of Terrible Optimism, by David Nickle

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Publication date – May 3, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The year is 1911. In Cold Spring Harbour, New York, the newly formed Eugenics Records Office is sending its agents to catalogue the infirm, the insane, and the criminal – with an eye to a cull, for the betterment of all. Near Cracked Wheel, Montana, a terrible illness leaves Jason Thistledown an orphan, stranded in his dead mother’s cabin until the spring thaw shows him the true meaning of devastation – and the barest thread of hope. At the edge of the utopian mill town of Eliada, Idaho, Doctor Andrew Waggoner faces a Klansman’s noose and glimpses wonder in the twisting face of the patient known only as Mister Juke. And deep in a mountain lake overlooking that town, something stirs, and thinks, in its way: Things are looking up.

Eutopia follows Jason and Andrew as together and alone, they delve into the secrets of Eliada – industrialist Garrison Harper’s attempt to incubate a perfect community on the edge of the dark woods and mountains of northern Idaho. What they find reveals the true, terrible cost of perfection – the cruelty of the surgeon’s knife – the folly of the cull – and a monstrous pact with beings that use perfection as a weapon, and faith as a trap.

Thoughts: Ah, the good old days. Where people dropped N-bombs with impunity, where doctors gave out morphine for broken bones, and where the improvement of the human race was worked on by sterilizing the feeble-minded and the crippled.

The title of this book is a deliberate and disturbing pun, referencing a path to utopia via eugenics, the selective culling of the less desirable aspects of the human race. If only the best exist and breed, then only the best babies will be born. At least in theory. Eugenics in itself is a chilling subject, and is mostly known as part of the Nazi agenda, but people don’t often realize that the Nazis were not the first to experiment with it. Just one of the most villified and thus the most famous. David Nickle acknowledges and plays with this fact by having the book set in American shortly after the turn of the 20th century. We follow the joint stories of Jason and Andrew, the former an orphan and only surviver of a plague that qiped out his hometown, the latter a black doctor hated by some and tolerated by others, as more and more of the secrets of Eliada’s so-called utopian ideals are unveiled in a truly disturbing fashion.

If there’s any real flaw in this book, it’s the transparency of the author’s writing. It was clear to me very early on that Germaine was not Jason’s aunt, and obvious also that Jason’s discovery of this was supposed to surprise the reader also. I felt no surprise, just a faint sense of, “I saw that coming half a book ago.” It was mostly this that counted against the book in terms of a final rating, for if some things had been less obvious, there might have been more of a sense of edge-of-your-seat suspense and drama going on.

But while nothing may have come as a surprise, that does not mean that it was all smooth sailing. Nickle has a real talent for writing disturbing and frightening scenes, not all of which rely on blood and gore to make their impression. The book was written with cinematic clarity, in a style that left little or no doubt as to what’s going on and how you’re supposed to see it.

The book’s ending also felt weak and rushed, and not so much open-ended as unfinished. The heroes get away, but don’t go too far from where all the horror of Eliada and the Jukes took place. We never really do get to find out just what was going on with the Jukes, nor what they were or what their purpose was. It would be easy to dismiss them as mindless monsters if it hadn’t been demonstrated that they possess a fierce cunning, a culture and drive and interaction with humans that can’t be dismissed so easily.

Still, in spite of the flaws it contained, it was still a good book, presenting a terrifying image of our past even when you exclude the monsters! Nickle is definitely an author to keep an eye on, and a real treat for casual horror fans!

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

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