Title: Empire State
Author: Adam Christopher
Published: 27 December 2011 (USA/Canada); 05 January 2012 (Rest of the World)
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Genre: detective noir, steampunk, science fiction
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 5/10
It’s prohibition-era New York, and Rex Braybury, a small-time, no-scruples bootlegger, watches the city’s two rocket-boosted superheroes fight an epic battle in the sky. Once friends, now mortal enemies, the Skyguard and the Science Pirate end their final fight in an explosion that alters reality. Very few know about it, but the catastrophe spawns an alternative version of NYC: the Empire State, “The City That Sleeps”.
Rex and the superheroes disappear for a while as the narrative crosses to the Empire State, a place that’s clearly a copied from NYC but at the same time is nothing like it. In this dreary city, Rad Bradley, the Empire State version of Rex, is a private detective down on his luck. He finds money and trouble when a beautiful dame in a red dress comes into his crappy little office anxiously asking Rad to find her lover, a woman named Sam Saturn. Rad doesn’t hesitate to take the case, but it quickly gets him involved in something much bigger and more dangerous than tracking down a missing person. NYC and the Empire State are linked, not just by a tear in the fabric of reality but by a few people who have somehow crossed over. Among those people are Rad’s double Rex and Sam Saturn. But the rift between the worlds might close, and if it does it could destroy both cities. Rad suddenly finds himself having to deal with conspiracies, mysterious and dangerous people, fascinating steampunk technology, and an event that defies what anyone knows about physics, not mention the realisation that his home and his entire existence is just a flimsy copy of something else.
When reading this, I wondered how the book would work without a blurb or plot summary. It’s very seldom that you dive into a book without knowing what it’s about first, so can the blurb actually function as a necessary introduction? I wondered this because, after a few chapters from Rex’s perspective in NYC, you jump straight into the Empire State with Rad and it’s not until much later that it’s explicitly stated that this city was created by the superheroes’ fight (although this is implied). I wasn’t disorientated, because I already knew this from the blurb and plot summaries I’d read, but what if I hadn’t? Would I have felt very lost, wondering what this weird city was and why it was in the book?
Speculation aside though, The Empire State is an interesting place. It’s a mirrored impression of NYC, so that the two cities share similarities but are nevertheless vastly different. The Empire State is quiet, constantly shrouded in fog and almost always drenched in rain. It’s going through ‘Wartime’, fighting against ‘the Enemy’, which everyone just accepts even though it doesn’t make a shred of sense since no one ever leaves the Empire State. Such a thing is inconceivable because there simply isn’t anywhere else. But something about the Empire State simply prevents its citizens from thinking about all the contradictions of their existence. It completely lacks NYC’s energy, to the extent that the dreariness is almost palpable.
As in NYC, it’s the prohibition era of the Empire State, but the latter is more like a fascist state. It’s ruled by the City Commissioners, and any dissent will probably find you in an early grave. Not only is alcohol banned but cigarettes are forbidden too, and most food and drink are rationed (a tragedy for the traditional private dick who practically survives on coffee and booze).
Every person in the Empire State is a double of someone in NYC, although you won’t get to see many of them, just the few who play a role in the plot. In terms of tech, the Empire State is a steampunk world featuring massive iron ships (ironclads) and robots that are used for war, airships and automatons.
It’s an intriguing world, but the more you read the less impressive it becomes because Christopher’s world-building gets increasingly flawed and unstable in an unfortunate parallel with his end-of-the-world plot. Rather than getting a better grasp on what the Empire State is and how it works, everything seems to unravel leaving gaping plot holes and important questions unanswered. At one point we’re told that the Empire State and NYC “cannot co-exist, for they are the same place” and yet it’s very clear that they’re not the same place and they’ve obviously been co-existing for some time. Nevertheless we’re then told that the Fissure that links the two worlds might either be closing or opening wider, or that someone is planning to destroy it, but whatever the case, it’s BAD NEWS and Rad has to put a stop to it, whatever ‘it’ turns out to be. If he doesn’t then the Empire State will be destroyed, or possibly the Empire State and New York or maybe even the Empire State, New York and the world. Some people are trying to travel from the Empire State to NYC, either because they somehow got stuck in the wrong universe or because NYC is simply a better place. This may or may not work, and may or may not destroy the Empire State and possibly New York, who knows? There are clearly other methods of crossing over but these don’t seem to be an option. Key figures are hatching plots based on what they think they know but frankly no one really has a handle on the physics, me least of all. I’m not a fan of hard sci fi, but I’d really appreciate that kind of rigor here. The novel certainly claims to be sci fi rather than fantasy, but it’s really not trying very hard.
Perhaps the most frustrating plot point is when an archvillain is revealed to have set this whole thing in motion, but the book doesn’t tell you how his whole role in this in even possible. It’s INFURIATING. Then there’s the matter of the doubles – every person in the Empire State has a double in NYC. However, there’s no consistency in the nature of the doubles. Rad is a private detective, the opposite of Rex who is a criminal. On the other hand another pair of doubles are so similar that they actually share memories and knowledge, which seems to contradict the way the two worlds work. Two pairs of doubles differ in age. Another pair looks dissimilar enough that no one realises they are doubles, whereas every other double is a splitting image of their counterparts. These inconsistencies suit the plot but weaken the structure of the whole.
Christopher is also guilty of the heinous crime of artificially maintaining the mystery by constantly varying Rad’s level of curiosity. This is one of my pet hates. Rad is a detective, a person who makes a living by noticing oddities and asking questions. And yet when he encounters things like Byron, a 7-foot tall automaton manservant in a brass helmet and boots, Rad decides it’s best not to ask about this kind of weirdness, only to make a mental note at the end of the novel that he must find out more. It drives me fucking loopy.
Perhaps I’m too fussy a reader for this book. It was released in the USA and Canada on 27 December and is being released worldwide today, and most of the reviews I’ve seen so far are positive. The novel does have a kind of pulpy appeal, especially for noir and steampunk fans. It also has some good ideas at its core and it’s well-written. There’s also a possibility that some of the gaps and inconsistencies in the plot were left there to give more creative space to the Worldbuilder project in which Christopher and publishers Angry Robot allow fan artists, writers and musicians to create their own works within the Empire State universe. Not that that’s a good excuse for a sloppy book, since it still has to stand on its own two feet. As a debut novel though, I’d say that even though Empire State doesn’t work for me, Christopher undoubtedly shows a lot of potential in terms of writing and ideas, so if he can tighten up the structure of his creations he could produce something really cool.