The Loop, Ben Oliver (Chicken House 978-1-338-58930-6, $18.99, 369pp, hc) April 2020.
In Ben Oliver’s The Loop, Luka has been in the prison known as The Loop for 736 days. Every day he wakes up in his solitary cell; works out; eats forgettable food; talks to the computer that runs the prison; spends one hour outside where he cannot see anyone but at least can speak to his fellow prisoners; visits clandestinely with Wren, the warden, when she brings his dinner; reads books that Wren sneaks to him, and then, every night, endures the invasive, painful, tortuous experience of having energy leached out of his body to power the batteries of the city. The next day it starts all over again, and until Luka ages up into The Block, where his death sentence will be carried out, it will continue. The only way to postpone the inevitability of The Block is to participate in a Delay. These government-sanctioned experiments on prisoners are alway painful and possibly fatal, but if the prisoner is lucky, he or she buys a little more time in The Loop, which is certainly horrible but maybe bearable, unlike The Block, which is notoriously worse. (Plus Luka will die there.) So, welcome to dystopia, dear readers, where author Ben Oliver has crafted a dark futuristic tale and Luka has one thing after another go wrong.
In all the ways that matter, The Loop is an example of classic dystopia. There is a vague government dictatorship in power, the city is under some sort of attack, drugs are rampant, no one has any control over their lives (least of all the warden, Wren), and everyone, free and incarcerated, is grimly resigned to their fates. There are also rats; lots and lots of very hungry rats in a long dark tunnel and yes, the rats eat somebody. (I don’t think that’s much of a surprise – when an author creates hungry tunnel rats they have to get fed.)
Oliver’s narrative moves at an increasingly frenetic clip as Luka and his fellow prisoners hope for a chance to escape, and then suddenly find themselves with that very chance. But nothing – absolutely nothing – in The Loop comes without a cost. Every time the reader pauses for a breath, Oliver flings another shock into the text, and in the turn of a page what seemed possible becomes a cliffhanger to doom. In the end, as twist follows twist follows twist, the reader will learn to expect the unexpected. This is dystopia after all; getting out alive is honestly more than any of these characters can hope for.
So, the verdict? The action is first rate, the technology effectively explained, and the characters, especially Luka, are all thoughtfully drawn, even those who only survive for a few pages. (Spoiler – several of these characters only survive for a few pages.) The Loop is best selected by those who like their future with a hefty dose of bleakness, but dystopian fans will find here exactly what they crave. Oliver knows what the genre demands, and he delivers on it, from the very first page.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the September 2020 issue of Locus.
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