The Human Disguise — James O’Neal

This book sucked. I hate to say that — I normally try to find at least SOMETHING nice to say — but seriously, this was just… not very good. On a basic level, the writing is clunky, the sentence structure disjointed and repetitive, and the author generally relies on the passive voice and on stock tropes as a means of developing characters’ identity. Because of this, character descriptions, motivations, and desires are all merely descriptive. It’s actually really surprising that this book is nearly 400 pages long, since it feels like a summary of a potentially interesting dystopian novel written at a fifth grade reading level. This doesn’t even go into the flaws in the actual plot, the complete LACK of an ear O’Neal displays for the idiosyncrasies of human speech, or the indistinct characterization of the female characters.*

Let me break down the plot. This is set at some point in the future, after the US has engaged in three wars in Iraq. I have no idea if Desert Storm counts as one of these. Anyways, the world (and the US) have basically gone to hell in a handbasket. There’s annual attacks on the US on 9/11, the southern states can no longer afford to have their own police force, Miami is a quarantine zone because of bioplague, NYC is toast, Germany’s talking smack to Poland (again?!?), global warming has destroyed the global climate, and there’s no more meat. Also, instead of maintaining prisons, if you get arrested you get sent to a prison unit serving in the Army in some desert. Everyone is pretty much a sad panda (except I think there are no pandas) and it’s hard out there for a pimp an honest man like Tom Wilner.

Wilner’s life is now major pain. His wife Svala has left him for a mysteriously handsome Serbian named Tiget Nadovich, his housekeeper has been becoming unreasonably hot, and his BFF Steve Besslia thinks that the “perps” in their latest “case” might be “aliens.”* The “aliens” in question include that wife-stealing jerkwad Tiget, and the case in question centers on a circuit board that could be used to build a dirty bomb. Tiget wants to detonate this bomb to extend the Miami Quarantine zone so that the other Simolits (HIS ALIEN BRETHREN)* can have a homeland. They’re immune to the effects of radiation (but not fire or a stake through the heart, which does not make any dang sense) so all the humans in the Zone would die, and the Simolits could chillax there in peace. Wilner does not like this plan, and the novel centers on his efforts to keep the circuit board away from Tiget.*

Along the way Wilner meets Shelby, who is a hot Department of Homeland Security agent, who’d be bad ass except she’s also an alien (a member of the Halleck clan, who are the arch-rivals of the Simolits) so she can’t actually be hurt. Also, for all Wilner’s talk of trusting her, she basically plays the plucky Nancy Drew to his inquisitive Hardy Boy, except if she was at all like the REAL Nancy Drew, she’d have her own book series. She’s pretty much a pretty plot device. She, Svala, and Mrs. Honzit, the unusually hot housekeeper, are all aliens who spend the majority of the novel deceiving Wilner as to their true intentions. They also all vaguely resent each other, and their role in Wilner’s life. They all have “women’s intuition,” referred to as such in text, and Svala and Honzit all know their way around the kitchen. In the fashion of sexy immigrant women everywhere, they know how to magically make a meal out of nothing that’s able to expand to feed the stomachs of an unknown, hungry horde of family.

To be fair, ALL the characters, except Wilner, are characterized inconsistently. The Hallecks are supposed to be the super-powered goodies working against the super-powered baddies, but they pretty much just pontificate and speculate on their own need for a dirty bomb. Wilner’s wacky friend Steve never does anything  wacky. The Simolits who are not Svala and Tiget are all one undifferentiated mass of Eastern European machismo. The UPF and national guardsmen are all corrupt. Blah. I kept hoping the dystopian premise would pan out, but no. This is a poorly written technothriller, a bad example of a genre where dreck is rapidly becoming the norm.


*Gee, I wonder if this might be a thinly veiled commentary on immigration and xenophobia. Remember, kiddies, all the REAL dangers come from without!

*They’re actually not aliens. They’re, like, vampires or whatever. Completely terrestrial, but still foreign because they’re Eastern Europeans. Their women are not like ours. They’re beautiful and apologize for cooking with synthetic meat.

*At one point he quite cleverly hides this vital component of a weapon of mass destruction in his tool kit in the garage. It gets stolen. Sigh. Wait, that means Wilner WAS characterized inconsistently. You can’t say your character is smart and then have them constantly do dumb shit.

The Human Disguise


  1. The Other Patrick says

    This talk of vampires reminds me of “The Strain”, co-authored by Guillermo del Toro, where before the final fight the one redeeming female character says to hero-man: “Don’t you dare ask me to stay behind. I won’t.” Upon which he asks her to stay behind, and she does.

    Aside from that, The Strain was just boringly generic and bereft of any characterization above movie tropes. Just as a warning.

  2. Maria V. says

    Heh, I actually read The Strain over the summer and thought it was fun — I was disappointed that Nora (I think she’s the char you’re talking about) gets so uninteresting by the end. I thought the nanny was hilarious. Would not read again, though.

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