Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Near Enemy

                           Why is this slowly becoming the month of books I really want to like but are laid low by really stupid ideas for endings? That's a terrible theme for a book blog, and in this case, where the ending ramps up to nowhere, it's especially egregious. Near Enemy enraged me when I read it, not because of its amazing depiction of a paranoid post-terror New York where anyone with money plugs themselves into a virtual world and forgets about the outside, but because the final sentences lead off into nowhere. Now, I have not yet finished Adam Sternbergh's first novel, the highly-acclaimed Shovel Ready (released a few months prior to Near Enemy), but I would hope it doesn't leave off unfinished at a random point before the assumed climax, or I would be forced to conclude that the man is one of those people who tells long stories at parties that go absolutely nowhere, trails off right when it sounds like it's going somewhere, and then never returns to it. 

                           But maybe a book with no ending won't bother you nearly as much as it did me. Maybe you will await the third installment on tenterhooks-- not your tenterhooks, of course, it's much more fun to use someone else's, but tenterhooks all the same. Maybe you'll see it as some kind of artistic choice. A terrible, terrible artistic choice. I'd suggest taking this one out of the library, or if you can find it for free somewhere by some miracle. But unless you're a disappointment fetishist, I'd strongly suggest that perhaps you don't buy this book. It's a lot of buildup for a few lackluster reveals and a plot that eventually ends just when it was getting good.

More, as always, below

Do you know what the most dangerous thing in the world is, Spademan? It's a man armed with a boxcutter and one fucking fact.
- Boonce

           In the not-too-distant future, terrorists detonated a dirty bomb in Times Square. This coincided with a technological breakthrough known as the Limn, a full-immersion virtual-reality environment that people wire into to escape the harsh and frightening realities of their existence. However, the sheer amount of technology and home-care needed to operate in the Limn 24/7 exclude most of the poorer elements of New York from the Limnosphere unless they can get a spotter and scrounge their own equipment. Those who can't exist in a world in which the infrastructure is crumbling and underground dealings flourish. Into this space slouches Spademan; a killer-for hire armed with a boxcutter, a sledgehammer, a burner phone and the attitude of a Dashiell Hammett tough guy. If you want someone dead, all you have to do is call Spademan with a name and agree to "the usual payment", and the person will more than likely wind up dead. 

           Near Enemy begins with Spademan getting a job from an unknown woman to drop a "bed-hopper" named Lesser. Lesser is a Limn user who spies on and stalks other Limn users, piggybacking in a feat of hacking and voyeurism.as they go about their fantasies. Only when Spademan arrives to find Lesser wired in, Lesser pops back into consciousness with an amazing story-- that someone has discovered a way to kill other people through the previously-harmless Limn. Sure enough, as Spademan investigates, he discovers that Lesser's story checks out. Someone has discovered a way to kill through the Limn. And, as a shady agency of mercenaries menaces Lesser, Spademan, and Spademan's family, he'll have to figure out why everyone's so interested in a measly bed-hopper, and why. 

            So allow me first to go on a tangent regarding music history, You see, in the sixties and seventies, there was punk. Then, when people tired of punk and its anti-everything posturing, they created post-punk as an expansion of themes. And, when post-punk's innovation started to wear on people, thence came industrial. The reason I mention this is because I think what Adam Sternbergh has created is the cyberpunk version of industrial, a gritty, paranoid future that borrows on post-cyberpunk's promise of brilliant worlds and twists them. There are a group of colorful hackers who feel like they'd fit in a Doctorow novel or one of those techno-utopian books about how technology saves us all, but here the optimism is toned down and the colors are washed out. Spademan's world is painted in black, white, and red, and any glimpses of utopia are the province of the rich and powerful-- in other words, the promise of technology and the utopia it brings stayed in the hands of the few rather than bringing everything to the hands of the many and creating a new society. It's been explored in other books (Noir comes to mind with its rants about how "the hippies lost"), but this feels like something new, a voice to challenge the old guard and possibly nudge the revolution to its next stage. 

          And speaking of stages, Sternbergh's New York feels rightly desolate. Abandoned. So many desolate stretches of post-apocalypse in fiction still feel vibrant and highly-populated. It's a problem the genre has. It's a problem Fallout and Fallout 2 actually had, despite being two of my favorite ridiculous post-apocalypse games. New York feels like a place of remnants, a once-opulent and urgent city reduced to quiet rubble. It feels oppressively quiet, even when it's not. It's easy to believe that all the characters in the story are all the characters left in New York, just going about their lives and trying their hardest not to get killed, a proposition that seems about as hard as it is living in Jack Womack's future Manhattan. 

               In fact, given that Spademan narrates the entire story in terse, clipped prose without any quotation marks and barely a definite article to be found, this doesn't seem far off from Womack's New New York. Less futurespeak and the like, but it still feels remarkably similar to the crumbling hellscape from Random Acts of Senseless Violence or the twistedness of Ambient*. I could see Spademan and his box cutter fitting right in with Gus and Jake. Or killing them. Either way. He's a hell of a character, an erudite philosopher hiding behind a brute, but not in the sense that he's brutal and philosophical, no, he remains the terse sociopath who kills people for a living, but through his stream-of-consciousness thoughts, he reveals hidden depths, depths he doesn't really allow himself to have. 

               But that brings up one of the issues for me with the book...the characters are less depth than they are secrets. Piles of secrets do not a character make. If everyone just has hidden depths, then they're just flat characters with hidden angles of flatness. For example, the character of Simon the Magician is an interesting character in that he constantly pitches in to move the plot along, but I don't get a good sense of who he is. Though since this book is a sequel to Shovel Ready, Sternbergh's first Spademan novel, then perhaps that has more to do with it.

                  And that brings us to the first problem with the book: It doesn't stand on its own. It's part two of a multi-part saga. It requires some knowledge of the plot of Shovel Ready, even with the exposition Spademan ladles into the early chapters. For the most part, these characters were fleshed out a book ago, so Sternbergh kind of feels he doesn't have to re-hash old...hash, as it were. But he does. He does so much, because of course there are going to be people who pick up Near Enemy and have no clue of the plot of Shovel Ready. But, as stated earlier, Sternbergh isn't one for plotting in general.

                      Why do I think this? Because Sternbergh can't end a single plotline to save his life. All the major reveals, all the major plotlines in Near Enemy, are tied up in the least satisfying way possible. And even after that, there's literally no resolution to any of them. All the issues of the novel are just kind of shrugged at, and then discarded. And then it stops. It doesn't end. Spademan prepares to fight the book's antagonist, and as he prepares to enter the Limn to do battle with his enemy, Sternbergh ends the book practically mid-sentence. The entire plot is explained in a car ride to the house where this is going on, and then the book just ends. This is kind of an unforgivable offense. And a massive waste of time. It isn't okay when fantasy authors do it for no reason, it's not okay when movies do it, and it sure as hell isn't okay when up-and-coming science fiction authors do it. The only reason it was okay when Bret Easton Ellis did it was because his book also started midsentence. 

                       But in the end, if you feel like reading Near Enemy, I'm not going to stop you. It's good. It's a gritty cyberpunk novel that leans a little heavier on the punk side, and Sternbergh's narrative voice kicks all kinds of ass. For such a gritty, monochrome world, it teems with color, and the desolation of New York feels real for once, which gives it weight. If you can get past the weird characterization, unsatisfying endings, and the fact that the book stops dead when it gets to a point where it thinks it's done, then by all means pick it up. But I think I'm going to be less optimistic and more cautiously optimistic when I pick up Adam Sternbergh again.

- Dr. Adder by K.W. Jeter

- Heathern by Jack Womack


*Seriously, though, Heathern is kind of a throwaway. But more on that in...two weeks? Something like? 

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