It's apt that Adam Christopher's debut novel Empire State deals with a bubble universe that is "a copy, a smaller, paler version of a city called New York" (p. 212), because that is exactly what it starts to feel like—a half-realized, glimmering imitation of its various inspirations, of the book it should be. Considering the breathlessly positive buzz this novel's been getting, I was disappointed.
It's true that Empire State's pulpy sci-fi conceits and canny deployment of iconography from hardboiled fiction, noir, steam/retropunk and Golden Age superhero mythology carry it through on the sheer weight of archetypal recognition. But to call such a feat original or peg it as the new great thing in genre literature would be pandering to this new media age's tendency to mistake the mashing together of trending cultural (pop and not) touchstones for sacrosanct artistic excellence. Cats and aliens! Robots and pirates! Ninjas and elves! Zombies (no, that fad still isn't dead, pun not intended) and anything in the universe! Unfortunately, the argument against that kind of simplistic awesome-craft is not invalid. To paraphrase that most wise speaker of modern truths, Louis CK—if we keep describing everything as "awesome," it devalues the very concept of awesomeness.
When the kind of generic fusion Christopher is going for is executed with care, it can make for fictions both diverse and rewarding, especially with a genre as adaptable as noir. Cult TV show Veronica Mars plunked teen high school drama into a noirish world of crimes and conspiracies and made its venerable gumshoe a smart young female high school student, with delightful results. Jeff VanderMeer's novel Finch successfully melded noir with body horror and dark fantasy. And one need only look to Blade Runner (1982), or even earlier to Kiss Me Deadly (1955), to realize that this kind of thing has been done well for a while now. When it's done simply because it feels like a good idea, though, the result can be something that is less than the sum of its original parts.
Adam Christopher isn't quite guilty of shoving disparate generic tropes and plots into one novel and hoping it'll be too cool for readers to judge as anything but brilliant. Rather, he shows himself to be a competent writer with a clear sense of what kind of story he wants to tell with the elements he's playing with. The problem lies with how dangerously effortless he makes the telling seem, and not in a good way.
Empire State follows private detective Rad Bradley's discovery of the truth behind his foggy home of Empire State, a sparsely populated, generic city that has nineteen years of history behind it and very vaguely resembles a Prohibition-era Manhattan under the constraints of perpetual "Wartime" with an unseen "Enemy" beyond its impenetrable borders. As the missing person case that Rad starts off with predictably unravels into the unveiling of a giant conspiracy, it is revealed that Empire State is a "Pocket" dimension created by a spacetime "Fissure" created in the "Origin," that is, 1930s New York City (though Christopher's version is itself an alternate history because of the existence of superheroes), which was itself unleashed by a catastrophic fight between NYC's resident superhero and supervillain (though no one seems to know for sure which is which), the Skyguard and the Science Pirate. And that's just the beginning of a tangled web of plotlines that stretch across the two connected cities.
As you might tell from the above summation, Empire State has the convoluted plots of the hardboiled fictions of old down pat. Indeed, the possibilities of taking the absurd complexities of Chandler, Spillane, and Hammett's labyrinthine stories and introducing them to the concept of parallel universes seem marvelously endless. And there are predictable complications caused by the fact that Empire State is populated by doubles of people from New York City, and by the fact that members of the two populaces sometimes switch places because of ill-defined bursts of energy between the Fissure. But for all the craziness that should ensue from such a collision of concepts and genres, the novel feels curiously sedate—as if the author is barely stretching his imagination.
Everything fascinating and potentially wondrous and mind-bending about this novel seems to happen second-hand in exposition and dialogue, or is simply passed over with haste. For example, we never find out why and how the Skyguard and the Science Pirate are so immensely powerful. They seem to alter the very fabric of reality with their battles, but when we meet them they’re less than mundane, insignificant cyphers in rocketeering suits. They're powerful because the plot needs them to be. They should be the symbolic heart of the novel, but they come off as dull pawns of the plot. There is another moment where we finally find out the nature of the "Enemy." It's a fascinating, genuinely exciting revelation, but we hear it narrated secondhand, and the concept is barely revisited once it sets the next phase of the plot in motion. Even the climactic final act is just characters brawling and delivering plot-twisting exposition in confusing, overpopulated action scenes set in dim, boring interiors. Sure, there are multiple airships and a spacetime fissure, but they're used with little creativity. All this might have worked in a cinematic or comic book context where visual dynamism can make up for such choices, but it does not work in a prose pastiche. Where's the sense of wonder, the beauty and madness that should be arcing around the notion of a New York City calving into cosmic bubbles because of mad superheroes?
There's a tantalizing moment midway through the book where two characters are discussing the exploits of the Skyguard and the Science Pirate, which include electrifying the Hudson and "[floating] Manhattan up into the sky . . . until the air was too thin to breathe." One of the characters remarks that he was in Manhattan during its levitation, and remembers how he "could see the stars, bigger and brighter and more colorful than ever in [his] whole life. Though that might have been oxygen starvation" (p. 188). A simple yet wonderful recollection that made me sit up in joy, hoping that this meant Christopher was preparing to ramp things up in the novel. But nothing even remotely as fantastic or over the top as that little recollection actually happens in Empire State, and the Skyguard and the Science Pirate in the book don't seem capable of such feats at all.
Everything is surface; the novel says nothing new about the time period is takes from, nor the genres it borrows from. Despite being set in a twisted vision of Prohibition-era America, it's completely ahistorical. For example, Rad is black, an unusual inversion of the traditional hardboiled protagonist, but this barely matters in the novel. There is no sense of what being black would mean in the historical context of Prohibition-era New York City or its quantum shadow. It's a surface choice, like centring the story around New York City for its iconic value (if it weren't for the occasional mentions of the Empire State Building and Manhattan, the novel could really be set in any North American city). Similarly, the noir archetype of the femme fatale is utterly wasted; a female client sets things in motion by walking into Rad's office, as per tradition, but she barely appears again. There's a female villain of sorts in the mix too, but she comes off more as a petulant brat than an iconic female foil befitting a noir/superhero universe. All the masculine anxiety and fear of female power, the writhing sexual subtext of noir, is tossed out the window. Every female character (there are very few) in the book feels like a throwaway.
The main problem here is that Empire State never feels fully realized, because Christopher doesn't move beyond the convenience of having his novel set in a half-ass bubble universe. The novel feels slipshod and generic because it's showing us a slipshod and generic version of a fully realized noir/superhero/historical universe that is the rarely visited "Origin" New York City. Because Empire State is just a hazy reflection of the "real" New York, Christopher doesn't need to (and doesn't) focus on the vital worldbuilding that would have made the novel more inhabitable; there is no historical or cultural detail, no sense of what makes this city a place to care about, even though we're supposed to be rooting for its continued existence (jeopardized by plot machinations) by the end. As Rex, an unwitting refugee and low-level bootlegging gangster from the Origin whose fate is entangled with Rad's, observes when he's pulled into Empire State:
All of the buildings were flat granite. There were no shops, no bars, no restaurants, no clubs, no stalls, no newspaper signs, no billboards, no advertising, no cars or busses [sic] or bicycles. No people, no litter. Just wet streets reflecting the yellow lights, and a million buildings with locked doors and black windows. (p. 180)
The above city does not make for an interesting or engaging place to spend time in, no matter how complicated the plot and how keen the callbacks to easy genre tropes and visuals (fedoras, trenchoats, fog, gas masks, capes and art deco helmets, airships, robot soldiers, you name it). Even the rare glimpses of Origin New York share a quality of facade with Empire State, as if the narrative were unfolding in a series of poorly detailed movie sets and green-screen backdrops.
The half-formed nature of Christopher's world(s) might have been salvaged by well-rounded characters, but the people populating both Empire State and New York City share the Pocket's lack of substance and depth. Everyone from Rad and Rex to the numerous supporting players is cardboard-thin, and held up by piles of exposition that explain their personal history or motivation in clear-cut, unambiguous terms. Rex is a simple goon interested only in personal gain, and wants to get back to New York City. Rad is a reluctant upholder of justice and a good detective, and only wants to do what's right for his home and its people. And so on. The villains (Rex is one of them) are cartoonish and shallow in their evil small-mindedness. Even when megalomaniacal villainy is well motivated by plot, such as in the case of mysterious cultist the Pastor of Lost Souls and the similarly mysterious Chairman of Empire State (both of whom have the potential to be absolutely fascinating characters once we get to know a bit about them), it's portrayed in such a simplistic way as to turn these characters into drooling caricatures of insanity.
Christopher just gives us the bare bones of what's needed to tell a complicated (in terms of plot, not theme or characterization) story of superheroes, superscientists, supervillains, criminals, and detectives in a couple of superficially New York-ish cities, instead of fleshing out his multiverse and giving it a sense of its own, lived-in reality. It feels uninspired and incomplete, an early draft of a good idea, or rather a whole battery of good ideas. A novel should create a bubble universe in the reader's head that's as rich and vivid and unlimited as the one she inhabits, not a "smaller, paler version," even if the plot lets you get away with it.
Empire State entertained me, and I was often caught up in it for the sheer verve of its studied convolution. It takes skill to weave such a deliberately tangled tale and have it make some sense by the end, and Christopher pulls that off admirably. But for all its brashly high concept draw, Empire State never embraces its own mad potential, remaining safe and flat as day-old soda when it should be sharp and intoxicating as bootlegged scotch. I've no doubt Adam Christopher can do much better, and I'm hoping he’ll prove me right with his upcoming sequel.
Indrapramit Das is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His work has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Redstone Science Fiction, New Scientist CultureLab, Apex Magazine, and Tangent Online. For more, visit his website, or his Flickr page.