The cover, sadly, is the best thing about Empire State
We should make it clear from the outset that we here at The Jade Sphinx read a great many trashy novels. However, as with all things, there are degrees of trash … and I will happily champion the work of writers as diverse as Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950), Zane Grey (1872-1939) and Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961). However, most genre fiction is barely readable, and much of it downright embarrassing.
This is particularly true in two new subgenres that seem to have taken the science fiction world by storm: steampunk and superhero novels. Superheroes, of course, are familiar to anyone who has been awake and attentive to pop culture for the past 25 years; steampunk, however, may take some explaining. Steampunk is science fiction set in the past (usually the Victorian era), but featuring retro-futuristic gadgetry or inverted social structures. One would think that the possibilities are limitless, but, actually, nearly all steampunk is gimcrack stuff. The overarching problem with the steampunk genre is that its practitioners really do not understand the past, or, worse yet, that everything they know about the past was gleaned from comic books and old television shows.
These thoughts – and others – drifted through my mind while reading two novels by Adam Christopher (born 1978), an emerging voice in the science fiction arena. His first book, Empire State (2012), is about an alternate 1920s-1930s: a pocket universe of supervillains, lesser gangsters, hard-bitten PIs, airships and superscience. In summary, it sounds like something right up my alley – I love that era and the pulp fiction written during it, and the book sounded like goofy fun. I pulled this, and his second novel, The Seven Wonders (also 2012) from the shelf. The Seven Wonders, if anything, looked like even more fun: a West Coast city full of superheroes, an ordinary man suddenly gifted (or burdened) with superpowers, and a threat from outer space.
Well… both books are major disappointments to even the most cursory readers of the genre. Empire State is a thudding bore, and your correspondent found it a slough to get through it. The book is innocent of a single fresh idea, and the situations and characterizations are third-and-fourth-hand: everything is a reflection of some earlier trope, or, worse still, a reflection of a reflection. Readers looking for an Art Deco romp should go elsewhere.
More egregious was The Seven Wonders. The book deals with a team of superheroes and how they react when a new, superpowered entity emerges. It also has a supervillain who changes alliances, a duplicitous sidekick, a moon base and various global threats. In it is nothing even remotely resembling a human being: the characters are all riffs on existing comic characters, and the story a pastiche (not a meditation, mind, but a pastiche) of comic book conventions. Complete with four (or five – I lost count) finales, it seemed to this reader like a novel that wouldn’t end.
The Seven Wonders also has to be the first book in recent memory that uses the word f-ck as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, expletive and gerund. Such linguistic flexibility may satisfy undemanding readers, but adults may be looking for a little bit more.