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REVIEW: Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism by David Nickle

REVIEW SUMMARY: This book will make you face history and language that’s as uncomfortable as the birthing process of the supernatural horrors it contains.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Monsters and eugenics combine in this historical horror.


PROS: Excellent writing; courageous, tight ending.

CONS: The supernatural aspect isn’t as scary as the historically accurate parts.

BOTTOM LINE: A great historical horror novel that will make you think long into the night.

Eutopia takes place in the early 1900’s when the eugenics movement was becoming popular with a certain type of people. Mrs Frost, an agent of the Eugenics Records Office finds her nephew is the sole survivor of a plague ravaged frontier town. She brings him with her to Eilada, Idaho, where an industrialist has started what he intends to be a utopic community.

But not everything’s rosy in paradise. The town’s black doctor, Andrew Waggoner, has had a run in with the Ku Klux Klan and discovered that his colleague, Dr. Bergstrom has been keeping a ‘Mr. Juke’ in quarantine. The more Dr. Waggoner learns of Dr. Bergstrom’s actions and who, or what, Mr. Juke is, the more imperiled his life becomes.

Because Mr. Juke’s family is coming to get him back.

For a novel that has such a horrifying supernatural creature at the heart of it, the true terror of the book was contained in the historically accurate parts. It’s hard to be afraid of made up monsters when the Klan and practicing eugenicists show up. Indeed, when you see the unrepentant Mrs Frost and delusional Dr. Bergstrom own up to their crimes, no fictional monster could possibly stand up to the horrors humans are willing to perpetrate on each other.

I call this novel courageous because Mr. Nickle focuses on a period of history most people pretend didn’t exist. The eugenics movement died after the holocaust showed the end result of such thinking. But denying that sterilization happened in other nations (including Canada and the U.S.), as painful as it is to admit, denies the injustices done to people in the past due to racism and elitist thinking. And allows the possibility of repeating such things. Fiction allows us to examine issues we’d rather not, in the safety of the present, when we hope such occurrences will never be allowed to happen again. In this way it reminds me of Blonde Roots, by Bernardine Evaristo, which flips history so Europeans are enslaved by Afrikaans. It shows how racism can go both ways and only the conquerors decide what is right and who are the elite.

People will find reading this book uncomfortable, for the subject matter and the liberal use of the ‘n’ word. We have whitewashed our history and no longer want to acknowledge the attitudes and language of the past. Even the subtle put downs black men faced, like using Dr. Waggoner’s Christian name when addressing him, rather than his title, are accurately represented in this book.

The ending is tight, bringing all three plot lines together in surprising ways. It’s an ending that is both satisfying, and thought provoking.

(Disclaimer: David Nickle is a regular at the bookstore where I work and provided my review copy. Having said that, the book was so good and the topic so fascinating (in a horrifying way) that I read the 600 page history book the author researched while writing Eutopia, War Against the Weak by Edwin Black. I highly recommend reading it. It will open your eyes about racism and the holocaust in, well, rather unpleasant ways.)

About Jessica Strider (102 Articles)
Jessica Strider worked at the World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto for 10 years before it closed in 2014. Now she's got more time to read books, so check out her <a href="//">blog</a> for SF/F book reviews, movie reviews, posts about the middle ages, and more.

4 Comments on REVIEW: Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism by David Nickle

  1. An interesting review about a fascinating book – like you I believe that science fiction is an ideal genre to discuss and explore a variety of difficult social and political issues, while using a fictional backdrop to take the heat and historical baggage out of a subject.  Racist elist behaviour is always just around the corner because we are hardwired to be tribal animals – so it behoves us to be constantly alert to its dangers…


  2. scotty // May 6, 2011 at 8:32 am //


    Whitewash indeed. Many people who are revered in certain circles today were vocal proponents of eugenics back in the day. Woodrow Wilson (the most racist president of the 20th century) and Margaret Sanger to name just two.

  3. Interesting review, Jessica.


    The eugenics movement is one that is quietly forgotten (or tried to be). I think the ties to Nazism, especially, make it easier to pretend it never happened.

    Of course, Brave New World definitely shows its pedigree of having been written when Eugenics was in fashion, since Huxley takes the “If this goes on” approach to thinking what would happen if it were continued and put into universal practice.

  4. I agree that SF is a great field for examining social issues – taking them to their extremes to show how things can go.  I’ve got a review copy for a new book that makes having more than 2 kids illegal, as a way of clamping down on the population (The Third by Abel Keogh). I’m curious to see how it handles things.

    I hadn’t actually made the Brave New World connection to eugenics, but thinking about the story, the world does center around being born to certain tasks, with a definite elite class.  What creeped me out about that novel was the part where children were taught to fear books.  Shudder.

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