Saturday, July 7, 2012

Empire State

"You're late."
"No, actually, you're early." He rechecked his watch. "Actually, I am late, I think my watch is busted."
"Like your lip."
- Rad Bradley and Kane Fortuna
        I found this book in a very conventional way, for once. It was on the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble not far from my house. Now, I don't normally support big bookstores, but they've never steered me wrong much. In fact, a lot of the ones I visit inexplicably have smaller and mid-range press genre titles sitting on the shelves without the slightest provocation*. I'd had a bad day, and some money burning a hole in my pocket, so I pointed myself towards the bookstore. And there the book was, its cover done in a very stark red-black-white-green Art Deco-style design, and its back promising a story of private detectives, film-noir backdrops, and masked villains. I was intrigued, and by the time it started to compare itself to Boardwalk Empire and Batman, I knew it would make the trip home with me. 
           And at first, it was brilliant. That was at first. As the book continued, it started to cool off a little, turning into something more and And eventually, I found myself realizing the thing I always realize...a lot of the modern retro-future writing aims high...and then promptly ducks under the bar. There are exceptions, of course...Stephen Hunt's lightly retro-themed fantasies are a delight, Larklight is a great book with an interesting atmosphere, and the seminal works of the genre-- like K.W. Jeter's Infernal Devices-- are, while flawed, classics in their own right. But it seems now that every pen jockey with something to prove has to say it with pneumatic tubes and an over-gross of airships. 

But that's enough of that. 

             Empire State is the story of private detective Rad Bradley, a man who doesn't seem terribly in his element. Rad lives in the Empire State, a fog-enshrouded version of New York City, and is given a case to find Samantha Saturn, a woman who has gone missing after an encounter with the quietly-sinister Pastor of Lost Souls. Rad is also menaced by two men in gas masks asking him about "Nineteen Fifty" and hounded by a long-dead superhero named The Skyguard. Rad must decipher the clues about the city and keep one step ahead of his enemies if he ever hopes to unravel exactly what is going on in his city and indeed why it even exists. As things ramp up, he will encounter cyborgs, doppelgangers, alternate universes, and the possibility that his own friends may know more than they let on. Much more than one could ever think of. In the end, he may have to contend with the end of the world if he hopes to solve the case and save his own universe from destruction at the unwitting hands of our own world.
            And I would like to tell you it's the book that revived my faith in the genre. I'd like to tell you it's the book that I could hold aloft as proof that the retro-future genre isn't a complete wash. 

Yeah. I'd like to. But you already know how this review is gonna go. 

              Empire State is above all a book with serious commitment issues. It wants very badly to be a golden-age superhero story. It also wants very badly to be an alternate-world story (spoilers be damned, it's right there on the back of the freaking book), a noir detective story, a retro-future sci-fi novel, and a pulp adventure story. It wants to be all these things and it tries really, really hard to be all of them. The problem is, since it can't make up its mind and it cannot be all of these things, it really just falls short of all of it. The book ends up a jangling, confused mess where people swap allegiances almost with the flip of a coin and a major character is named "Nimrod" for seemingly no purpose than to hold up the naming conventions. The ending makes no sense, as not even the main character can tell whose side he's on and what he's doing in the overall conflict. 
              That sense of not really knowing what's going on permeates the entire book, too. Perhaps it's just that I failed to connect with the plot on any level, but it just didn't seem like there was any reason for me to. The initial chapters did much to try and draw me in, but once I was there; the story got bored, puttered around the house, checked its email, and then promptly looked back into the living room where I was sitting and asked, "Oh, you're still here?" When the few historical characters used (there are two of them at the very least, I know, shocker) appear, they're given some brief context as to who they are, but not really much to why they're there. The main villain of the piece is one of those, further driving any investment in the plot towards apathy.
               Speaking of the characters that drive the main plot, there are four of them. None of them are the main character. Not a single one. And this is the problem. There are books where the protagonists have had no effect on the plot. Gravity's Rainbow is a good example of a book where the main character has no real effect on the plot, and Gravity's Rainbow, despite being the most incoherent and cack-handed book ever written, is a fantastic read**. But to have us follow a single character from cohesive beginnings to an incoherent climax that involves Rad, his alternate universe double (spoilers be damned, if there's an alternate universe, there is always an alternate universe double. This is a scientific fact), his introduced-as-untrustworthy ballroom-dancer friend, and just about every other high-powered character in the story. It eventually rockets towards a climax that, somehow, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack handled better***.
                However, after all of that, I do have to say this: The book has its good points. A fair number of them. The bits in the Empire State reveal a pulp dystopia**** that sounds like a lot of fun to play around in, and there is an excellent control over setting. At the beginning, the mystery is gripping and reads very well, unfolding with just the right amount of information to keep you guessing. I admit that this is one of the very few works of fiction that had me stumped: I had no idea where they were going with the story (I would later learn this is because the story went nowhere), and I liked that. And the dialogue, on top of all those things, is very well-done. Maybe not to Locke Lamora levels, but very well done nonetheless.
                But in conclusion, it is the plot that keeps the book down, and the plot that damns it. Despite having a great many cool concepts in it, the book isn't actually about anything, and without any kind of driving force behind it, the machinery breaks down, and that big, beautiful box of a plot unfolds into a depressing Christmas present, much like an ugly sweater but with more robots and gunplay.The issue Mr. Christopher has in his book is the same one I have with my own writing-- you can invent as many cool concepts and characters and lines as your mind can dream of, but it doesn't mean a thing if you can't give them anything to do.
                And so my final verdict would be this: While I don't recommend this book, it's certainly not terrible enough to warn you away from it (Hello to Ghosts of Manhattan!). I'd suggest taking it out from the library if you're curious, and seeing how you fare. It's certainly an interesting novel, if not a particularly well-plotted one. 

Next Week: A new classic of literature with Broken Piano for President

*It's weird, but then again I live in New Jersey. Weird kinds of things (like, f'rinstance, Eraserhead Press books sitting on the shelves of Barnes & Noble) just sort of happen statewide. My unofficial state motto is "Over sixteen portals to hell and counting!"

**As a sidenote, I hate this book even more for making me use up a Pynchon reference before I did a review of an actual Pynchon book.

***Actually, in hindsight, I may have been a little too hard on Burton & Swinburne. Despite the stupid time-travel bits, it's actually quite well-constructed compared to other books in the retro-future genre.

****This word is not recognized by my spellcheck, but somehow "Quidditch" is. Why is it not recognized by my spellcheck?!

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