Deeply Meaningful and Apocalyptic Hand Lotion
There are a lot of science fiction stories about the end of the world. There are plenty about the evil of corporations. There are probably some that involve millions of genetically identical people, maybe even a few with apocalyptic hand lotion.
But are they this fun?
That’s the thing about Extreme Makeover: Apocalypse Edition—it tells a great story, has interesting characters, involves believable (yet ultimately apocalyptic) science, and hits all end-of-the-world notes we love from stories like The Stand and A Canticle for Leibowitz. But it has so much fun doing it. This is probably the funniest book that I’ve read in years.
It’s also the most meaningful funny book I’ve read in years. Beyond some characters who realize some universal things about being human, and beyond Wells’ own obvious beef with the corporate cosmetics industry (one in which he worked for ten years), there is a deep message here about appearance and identity. A message that plays out in every storyline, that every character somehow faces, and that ultimately we all have to face in society. And Wells explores it deeply without ever (really) getting on his soap box (there might be this one page…).
If I can level a criticism, it’s that the characters don’t always feel deep or well-rounded. They play their parts believably, say a few insightful things, and none fall into stereotypes, but still somehow they feel secondary to the plot, to the larger ideas Wells is playing with. Or, maybe he just sacrificed depth for more good jokes, which honestly, we’re not complaining about.
So what’s it about, anyway? It’s about a cosmetics scientist who accidentally creates a hand lotion that imprints on your DNA, and then keeps rewriting it, to make you appear young. Only, if someone else uses that same lotion, it rewrites their DNA to yours. So you can be a more beautiful, youthful you, or become someone else more beautiful. Or handsome. Or genetically perfect. Or… politically powerful. Or deathly ill, if you wanted to weaponize it. Or even not human anymore—and it all happens, with an inescapable political capitalist logic that feels far too familiar.
Which is the best part of the book: the way, despite the far-fetched technology, the central themes and conflicts hit home. Because we live in a world controlled by money, not ethics, and a society obsessed with identity and appearance. And though neither Wells nor any of his characters may offer us a solution, Extreme Makeover does what all good speculative fiction does: it gives us perspective, a look at a world just different enough from ours, and just familiar enough, that we see our own a little differently, get a new take on our strange-yet-familiar life stories.
Hell, maybe even an idea for a makeover.