Ketcel, By Chad Deal, 364 pgs.

There is little as imposing as an international border, especially one between two countries at different levels of “development.” The value of life and basic human freedoms are nullified in the interest of the proclaimed greater good. In his novel Ketcel, author Chad Deal takes the reader on an elaborate sci-fi thrill ride through the danger and desperation of life at and beyond the U.S./Mexico border and offers up a terrifying taste of what the imminent future of these two nations might look (and smell) like. Zombie-like “deportees,” university professors moonlighting as sex cult leaders, conniving cartel police, Border Patrol robots, Virtual Reality phantoms, and human animals of all sorts all rear their scaly heads and keep Ketcel as intriguing and entertaining as it is unsettling.

Luna is an aspiring journalist, recently relocated to Mexico City, whose new editor assigns her the perilous task of livecasting via Afterthought (a sort of virtual reality platform) from inside the cartel-controlled Maquilanda Limbo “manufacturing prisons.” In Limbo, deportees work under factory slave labor conditions to earn back their stripped U.S. citizenship. Luna’s cohorts include Don, a cantankerous medical tourist who ends up on the wrong end of a twisted cartel murder game; a Haitian refugee turned hard-drinking Tijuana police captain hounded by gender dysphoria for which he finds a release in Sawlips (another Virtual Reality platform) and drug abuse; and Eli, the crew’s seemingly dim-witted Mennonite tour guide through Limbo.

Inside the thirty-foot walls of actual trash surrounding Maquilanda Limbo on three sides (the fourth being the U.S. border), lines are blurred: friends and enemies, life and death, reality and virtual reality, and history and future. All become much more fluid than normally perceived. The effect is surreal, kind of a BladeRunner-in-the-Mexican-desert feel, but not ambiguous. Ultimately, Deal pulls the intricacies of the plot together neatly and masterfully, with each component landing exactly where it should and holding its weight throughout. Furthermore, the author demonstrates a formidable grasp of the political and social climates of modern Mexico, the Toltecs and other aspects of ancient Mexican history, theories on emerging technology and its place in society, the pitfalls of late capitalism, and desert sex cults.

I was once stopped and searched by a member of the Tijuana police force (I did nothing wrong; I swear to god). After they produced an unfamiliar lighter from my pocket, being framed for planted contraband immediately became a serious concern. Fortunately, nothing happened, and my fear was probably the result of too many 1980s B movies. However, we all see the result of rampant corruption regularly in our neighborhoods and in our newspapers. Ketcel tells the haunting story of a future world where corruption has become the overwhelmingly dominant social force. Deal’s novel can also serve as a warning to the corruptors themselves: your time will come. –Buddha (Stay Strange Publishing, staystrange.com)