No Spandex Required – ‘Empire State’ by Adam Christopher

I so wanted to love ‘Empire State’.  With its vibrant Art-Deco style cover to its promise of super-heroes in prohibition era New York, and a Chandler influenced protagonist, it should have ticked every box.  Unfortunately I rather had the wrong end of the stick.  I had anticipated a light, thrilling read – ‘Spandex and Speakeasys’, if you will.  Instead, at the centre of the novel is a tantalising dual reality, and a tale the true nature of which is elusive and hard to pin down.  There are peculiar and inexplicable goings on that, until the trick was revealed, made my brain hurt.  Unfortunately, the sleight of hand, once performed, was underwhelming.

Christopher is undoubtedly an author to watch, but with ‘Empire State’ I felt he’d tried to be too clever.  There is so much crammed into the novel’s 400 pages, it’s hard to gain a sense of what the novel is really about.  Whilst this is in no way a bad read, had I at some point lost my copy, I could happily have gone through life never knowing how the book finished.

It is almost impossible to review ‘Empire State’ without letting a few things slip, so if you don’t want to know anything about the story and structure of the book, then look away now…

The settings for the novel are great.  New York proper is barely in the book but it is well-drawn nonetheless.  Taking centre stage is the Big Apple’s sinister alter-ego, ‘Empire State’.  A city that coexists with the real New York, Empire State is a police state, overseen by the shadowy ‘Chairman’, who resides on the 101st floor of the Empire State Building.  The novel’s protagonist, Rad Bradley, is a gumshoe, cast from the same mould as Philip Marlowe.  He is hired to investigate the disappearance of a woman.  Very soon a body turns up, but there are inconsistencies.  Rad must work out what is going on; if he doesn’t, the consequences for the Empire State will be traumatic.

The book has two main problems.  Firstly is the sheer number of existing works that Christopher borrows from.  His overlapping cities are very reminiscent of China Miellivile’s ‘The City and The City’, as is the peculiar sense of detachment in the first half of the novel.  The wisecracking PI is obviously straight from Chandler.  If the Empire State is Gotham, then its superheroes are Batman (well one of them is anyway) and one of the villains will be all too recognisable to fans of the Bat.  These are big boots to fill.  All three represent masterworks of the genre, and Christopher just can’t compete.  It’s a shame; inviting comparison to such works show inadequacies in the novel that would have gone unnoticed had the author not attempted to be so ambitious.   When you add in alternate realities, doppelgängers, robots and airships, there are just too many balls to keep in the air.

For me though, where the novel really fails is with its characters.  They are to a man, flat and uninteresting.  My detachment from the novel was, in part, caused by my inability to empathise with any its players.  I found it hard to care whether their world survived or not.  So bland are the ensemble cast, I struggled to remember who was who, making it even more difficult to work out was going on.  This problem was compounded by the fact that most of the characters in the book had similar but not identical doppelgängers, one for each world.  Separating the characters in my mind, was like trying to arrange differing shades of beige without a colour key.

But these rather damning indictments paint too bleak a picture of what is great concept urban sci-fi.  The execution may be clumsy, but at the heart of ‘Empire State’ is an intriguing story about trust, identity and state control.  Despite being over-ambitious, Christopher should be applauded for the depth of his vision.  I’m sorry I didn’t enjoy it more, but having said that I am still excited about Christopher’s next novel ‘Seven Wonders’.

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The Geek Shall Inherit… ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

This review first appeared on Amazon.co.uk in Aug 2011

…if not the earth, then its biggest computer simulation, containing a multitude of worlds.

‘Ready Player One’ is set in the near-future. The real world is collapsing; climate change and a lack of energy resources have changed the face of the planet. Discontented with their lot, millions of people spend their days plugged into the OASIS, a virtual world, where your identity is a secret, and if you can imagine it, then you can make it happen.

The novel’s plot revolves around a quest set by the creator of OASIS. In his last will and testament, Richard Halliday revealed that an ‘Easter Egg’ was hidden somewhere in OASIS. The finder of the Easter egg, inherits the company, and gets the keys to OASIS. Halliday was a computer and Role-Playing freak, who liked Monty Python and the band Rush. He played Dungeons and Dragons a lot, as a kid. If you are never been into any of these things, you probably aren’t going to enjoy this book. Similarly, if you are wondering how you hide chocolate ovoid confectionary in a computer game, then this is probably not the book for you.

I imagine that the appeal of ‘Ready Player One’ has a narrow bandwidth, but for those who do like it, the appeal will run deep. It’s geek manna. The novel in essence is a string of 1980’s computer game trivia and RPG references roped together by a decent story line. It’s a nostalgia trip for those who didn’t get out as much as they should have.

The story follows egg hunter Parzival, on his quest to find his own holy grail. He has spent his life opting out of reality, in order to become an expert on the life and loves of Richard Halliday. He has played Halliday’s favourite games countless times, can recite his favourite films from memory, and has read all his favourite books. Like countless others, he has spent five fruitless years trying to solve the riddle and find the prize.

Much of the interaction in the book is in the virtual world. The characters are nearly all Avatars, their owner’s identities hidden for much of the novel. Parzival forms several uneasy friendships with other hunters, tied by their interest and obsession with the hunt, but held apart by the fact that only one of them can win. The true villains of the piece are the megacorp IOI, who have flouted the spirit of the competition, in order to grasp the reins of Halliday’s empire, and bring it under their rapacious control. When Parzival finds the first key to solving the mystery the game is on.

Enjoyable though `Ready Player One’ is it does have some flaws. The storyline doesn’t fully convince. It’s taken five years for anybody to come close to solving the first part of the puzzle, but once it has been solved the next parts are solved very quickly. Some of the ideas used in solving the first section are repeated for parts two and three, and so things become rather repetitive; there is only so much geeking-out over ancient arcade games, this reader can do. As another reviewer has mentioned, the villains are a little underpowered; the idea of an `evil’ corporation being too simplistic.

But these are minor gripes. This is a novel that will appeal to fans of RPG’s, LOTR, WOW and many other acronyms. It reminded me in places of Cory Doctorow’s novels For the Win and Makers (Doctorow even gets a name check somewhere in the middle of the novel). ‘Ready Player One’ is an inventive and entertaining debut; a little far-fetched, but a glorious homage to early geek history. I look forward to seeing what Ernest Cline comes up with next, a multiple of virtual worlds are his oyster.

Don’t Forget To Read It – ‘How to Forget’ by Marius Brill

This review was first posted on Amazon in July 2011

‘How to Forget’ is a preposterous but highly enjoyable novel. It is filled with swindles and confidence tricks, magic and sleight-of-hand. There is also some cracking wordplay (or maybe dreadful puns, depending on how you feel about such things).

I found the start of the novel as little confusing. The opening of the book, tells how Marius Brill has ordered the notes of Dr Tavisligh, a controversial neuroscientist. Tavisligh has disappeared and Brill has taken on the job of ordering the notes of her last experiment into some sort of order. The story follows several points of view, and is interspersed with clippings from various (fictional) scientific publications. This led to a rather broken up beginning. It was interesting but it was hard to see how a narrative might evolve. Part Two of the novel (from page 60) blew my misgivings away.

The two main characters are Peter, an accomplished magician, who, after a particularly putrescent child played a trick on him, is on the sex offenders register, and Kate, a con-artist down on her luck. There is a great ensemble cast, in particular Titus, a smarmy Derren Brown type TV hypnotist and Agent Brown, the dogged FBI agent who has been tracking Kate for most of his career.

The reader is treated some great bluffs and double bluffs, double crosses and sleight-of-hands. It’s all breathtakingly inventive. I’m not sure the plot would stand up to scrutiny, it’s quite a house of cards that Brill has built, and it probably wouldn’t be hard to knock it down. But what sort of curmudgeon would want to do that?

There is also a serious side to the novel. Much of it deals with our memories, and how sometimes life would be so much easier if we could simply forget. Peter works in an old people’s home with sufferers of dementia. There are some touching scenes and thought-provoking commentary on the tragedy of memory loss.

I think there were probably a few too many digressions into the scientific papers, I’m not sure they improved my reading experience, but they dwindle to almost nothing as the novel progresses. They certainly did nothing to spoil what is highly accomplished storytelling. I doubt many better books will be published this year. Highly recommended.