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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Empire State - Adam Christopher

One of the most highly anticipated titles of early 2012, Adam Christopher's Empire State has been billed as superhero noir.  Angry Robot, recognizing the broad appeal of such a pastiche, has marketed the novel along with their WorldBuilder project.  WorldBuilder invites readers to create their own works based in the world of Empire State, which Angry Robot may publish (if they get anything good).  That's neither here nor there, but I thought it worth mentioning.  As a novel, Christopher's debut is wildly entertaining in a tradition Angry Robot fans have come to expect.

Set in New York City during prohibition, Empire State starts with a street tough named Rex witnessing the final battle of the superhero Skyguard and his nemesis the Science Pirate.  Make note of this, because it's the last real super-superhero action you're going to get (mostly).  The story quickly jumps out of New York and into the Empire State (don't worry, you'll be back) -- a parallel-universe, where prohibition continues unfettered and a never ending war with an unknown enemy keeps the populace in constant fear.

The narrative centers around a private dick named Rad Bradley, a divorcee who at 40 years old can only remember the last dozen years or so.  Beautiful women and newspaper reporters soon get him embroiled in a murder mystery that crosses space, time, and dimension.  Sound a little complicated? It is and it isn't.  At its core, Empire State is a standard mystery novel couched in the noir tradition. Rad is a straight forward down on his luck, hard-boiled P.I. working his way through a murder and the conspiracy behind it.

So, that's what the novel is about? Not really.  Near as I can tell, it's really about social inequality.   Existing as a poor copy of New York, down to the people themselves, the Empire State is an isolated and oppressed pocket of humanity.  At its edges, reality blurs, and across the Hudson River exists the Enemy, a nebulous entity of government machinated fear.  The conceit exists on two levels, both within Empire State and in New York.  Internally the authoritarian government rations its populace living large at the top, while those below struggle to subsist.  Externally, those without would sooner see it forgotten or destroyed all together because the implications of Empire State call into question self-realizing notions of identity and existence (draw what parallels you like from real life).

Alright, I might be pushing it a bit with that breakdown, but it's certainly there, whether the author intended it or not.  As for the prose and tone of the novel, Christopher does a bang-up job of conveying the State's bleakness.  The lament of lost memory and the hopelessness of constant war hangs over everything.  It's tangible and permeates all of his characters most especially Rad and heretofore unmentioned trapped explorer, Captain Carson.  Christopher channels a certain dark humor as well that kept me smirking in the face of the unrelenting gloom.

On the downside, the novel does struggle at times with clarity (here's where things get complicated), mostly in breaking down how and why Empire State exists.  Christopher would probably have benefited greatly from an astrophysics degree, and the whole setup reminded me not a little of Mark Hodder's Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack in that the novel itself isn't science fiction, but the device that makes it possible is.  How it all ties together with the plot makes for an obscure ending that doesn't jump the shark as much as it detours around it.  All that adds up to an ending that relegates Empire State to great noir instead of a great novel.

Utlimately, Christopher does a lot more right than he does wrong in his debut.   It seems that Lee Harris and the Angry Robot team have a clear editorial direction in publishing these pastiche novels that don't fit neatly into any sub-genre -- a trend that looks to continue well into 2012 with Empire State at the fore.  I don't put it in the same class as Lauren Beukes's Zoo City, but Adam Christopher is another great new voice in the genre.   It'll be interesting to see where he goes next.

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