Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick, David Wong (St. Martin’s 978-1-250-19579-1, $27.99, 368pp, hc) October 2020.
David Wong enjoys an eye-catching title. His 2007 debut went with the striking John Dies at the End, followed by the equally intriguing and impressive This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It (2012) and What the Hell Did I Just Read (2017). The title to Wong’s latest novel, Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick, is arguably the best of the bunch and indeed the reason why I picked the book up for review. (Change “The Future” with “2020” and “Zoey” with “Ian” and you’ve summed up my feelings towards this last year.) Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick is the second novel in the Zoey Ashe series which began with the slightly less provocative but altogether more elegantly titled Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits. It’s to Wong’s credit that I only realised Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick was a sequel when I finished the book.
Those of you have read Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits will already know that the eponymous Zoey is your typical small-town, trailer-park girl who inherits a massive fortune following the untimely (and violent) death of her estranged father. This means Zoey owns a shitload of prime real estate in Tabula Ra$a (the $ is deliberate), one of several cities founded by the ultra-wealthy in an attempt to free themselves “of the baggage and stagnation that was weighing down the rest of the modern world.” Of all these “ludicrously expensive social experiments” established since the early 2020s, Tabula Ra$a is the most successful, a lawless place where the rich, like Zoey’s father, indulge their fantasies and where body enhancements can transform a person into a superhero or supervillain.
In the year since her arrival, Zoey has made efforts to reform her father’s mob-like organisation, using his money and resources for good rather than evil. Despite this, Zoey has detractors, namely a group of men in their 20s who cruelly compare her to a cow, upload compromising pictures of Zoey on Blink (Tabula Ra$a’s social media platform that controls all the wireless cameras in the city) and moo whenever she’s in public. However, things escalate when one of these disaffected young men, Dexter Tilley, jacked up on illegal enhancements, takes hostage the patrons and female entertainers at the Night Inn Cuddle Theatre (a property Zoey belatedly realises she owns). With the help of her competent team (and a spider-drone monster), Zoey convinces Tilley not to blow up the Theatre. Several weeks later, Zoey is sent Tilley’s reanimated, mechanised corpse by a group called Blowback. Via the cadaver’s mouth, they not only accuse her of murdering Tilley and feasting on his internal organs but also threaten to storm Zoey’s estate on Halloween Eve. As Zoey and her people work to uncover which of her enemies are pulling Blowback’s strings, calamity strikes when Zoey’s best (and only friend), her beloved cat Stench Machine, is abducted.
As to be expected from a novel with such a flashy title, there’s a filmic, tent-pole quality to Zoey Punches the Future in The Dick. A good chunk of the plot sees our protagonist transitioning from one wild action set-piece to the next, whether it’s the hostage scenario that begins the book, or Tilley’s shambling cadaver chasing Zoey around her mansion, or one spectacular scene where, as a diversionary tactic, Zoey deploys a giant mechanical cat that farts smoke and vomits skin cream. As much as these shenanigans are fun (albeit a little too drawn out for my tastes; the book overall could have been shorter), the novel is at its best when Wong explores the nature of wealth and power. In the character of Zoey, Wong pushes against the fairy-tale cliché where the downtrodden (through supernatural means or otherwise) are rewarded a life of carefree prosperity. Zoey’s uneasy relationship with the resources at her disposal is as much about reconciling her father’s less-than-pristine legacy as periodically recalling the recent past: a trailer park life where she lived from paycheck to paycheck. But Zoey’s undertaking to make Tabula Ra$a a better place forces her to weigh up her principles against the distinct possibility that her decisions will ruin the lives of thousands of people. This is bluntly pointed out by Zoey’s right-hand man Will Blackwater:
You’re still picturing wealth like it’s a pile of gold coins in your vault. It’s not. It’s a machine. You pay five thousand employees just to run your rental properties. Cleaners, maintenance, security. So you want to close it all down, fire all of them? Split up the cash and give it to the homeless in this big one-time payment that they’ll spend within a month on drugs and booze? And then what?
Because the plot takes precedence, Wong doesn’t unpack this tension between idealism and pragmatism as much as I would have liked. Even so, I’m glad that, amongst the zany, colourful action sequences, the novel recognises that even with good intentions and all the money in the world, punching the future in the dick is not as straightforward as it’s cracked up to be.
This review and more like it in the January 2021 issue of Locus.
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