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In his debut novel, Necropolis, Michael Dempsey contributes to a long history of hybridization within science fiction, offering a mash-up of futuristic dystopia and a hardboiled noir sensibility borrowed handily from the likes of Hammett and Chandler. There's no shortage of cliché and pulpy turns of phrase—we have a detective standing around "smoking and looking at [his] shattered reflection" (p. 57), and corpses fall "dead as love" (p. 353). There's also literally a scene in which a detective is confronted in his office by a beautiful, seductive woman who promises to be in possession of a number of secrets.

But the fusion is largely successful. Necropolis's protagonist, Paul Donner, is a jaded NYPD detective—"My job . . . grinds at you, tries to make you hollow. A lot of the guys go under. Succumb to the undertow . . . Like they're dead already and just going through the motions of being alive" (p. 2)—who's shot and killed, along with his wife, in the present day of the novel's prologue. He's then "reborn" (in his actual body) decades later in a transformed New York, which has been quarantined from the rest of the world after the "Shift" occurred, a mysterious event which resulted in the spontaneous reactivation of inanimate DNA. This is a literal zombie uprising, but much more mundane than George Romero's nightmarish visions. The zombies of Necropolis are essentially just normal people, albeit strange-looking—their eyes are "laced with shimmering gold flecks," their hair an "iridescent white" with "jet black" nails (p. 16)—and also completely unaware of anything that has happened to the world for at least the past four decades. They are the new underclass, their anomaly genetic rather than racial, and are treated as such by their fellow citizens; many of them live on the streets, and crimes against them are punished less harshly than those against regular humans. The reborns also happen to suffer the effects of a genetic process referred to as "youthing" in which a person ages rapidly backward after their reanimation, a regression to infancy which proves fatal every time.

So there's no immortal paradise available to these reborns—or at least, as it turns out, not yet. A corporation called Surazal, which has taken over the city post-Shift, is funding research in the hopes of finding a cure, but someone out there doesn't want them to succeed and is methodically eliminating key scientists. Enter Paul Donner, reborn and recruited by Nicole Struldbrug, sister of the President and CEO of Surazal, to investigate the murders—and, on his own time, to investigate who may have killed him and his wife. The narrative is infused with nostalgia for a lost past, which seems logical given Donner’s predicament. In Dempsey's futuristic (perhaps better described as retro-futuristic) New York City, each neighborhood has adopted styles of fashion from particular points in history, such as the flapper era of the 1920s or the tie-dye and bellbottoms of the 1960s: refabricated looks for a refabricated world, the old becoming new again. But more than that, nostalgia becomes a primary concern of the novel—not the desperate longing for a past untouched by some dire trauma, which is almost a given in dystopian novels, but instead a longing for some pastoral fantasy:

We're so efficient nowadays, aren’t we? We get from one place to the next so quickly. Information is plucked from the ether, effortless and immediate. But what's the trade-off? Once, we had to walk. Many roads, many steps, many hills. It took more time and effort. Everything moved slower. But we passed homes and stores, said hello to the shop owners or people on their porches, inquired about their families. Noticed the new buds on the trees. Isn't that important information, too? (p. 250)

Donner finds much to agree with here. He's a man haunted by the past, but he also believes that he could make everything better if he could only go back and do it all over again. The idea of change is what scares him: "If . . . landmarks from the past—those people and things I'd loved and felt lost without—if they hadn't been going to remain the same anyway . . . even if I hadn't died, they'd have still changed and eventually gone away, as all things do" (pp. 139-40). The present is dirty, confusing, and tainted by struggle and loss, while the past seems to offer some hope of redemption. For example, one character offers an impassioned lament about the general loss of age-old traditions—a lament also apparently about e-readers:

Once we had to read. I mean, really read. Oh, the Conch [a version of the Internet which is embedded in people's minds] will give me the words to Oliver Twist. But would I see how the volume was bound? Which typeface the printer had carefully chosen? What about the way the previous owner had loved and cared for the book, or how she'd worn down the edges with frequent readings, or how she'd left a chocolate fingerprint right at the point when the Artful Dodger lifts the gentleman's pocketbook? (p. 251)

But Donner's romance with the idea of some imaginary, perfect past is short-lived, as he eventually realizes that his occasional delusions about being "pioneers in a virginal America of two hundred years ago" and the "allure of a simple, rustic life" is "just a fantasy. The people of that time lived brutal, short lives. Things haven't changed much" (p. 260). In the end, the novel becomes an ode to accepting one’s circumstances and making the best of a dealt hand. The past may be alluring, but it’s only a fantasy. Donnor acknowledges that if he could "accept the world for what it was and not what I wanted it to be, perhaps there was a chance for me" (p. 279).

The same, however, could be said of the experience of reading Necropolis. If one doesn't expect too much, the pleasures of Dempsey's novel—strong pacing, a lively cast of characters—might be enough to offset the trotting out of various well-worn tropes, but first you have to quell the impulse to compare it too closely to its predecessors. Necropolis is very much a thriller in the Hollywood sense of the word—fast-paced and full of plot twists, the action taking place on well-described set pieces which seem tailor-made for the big screen. The ingredients are very tried and true: jaded hero with a drinking problem acquires a love interest amidst an investigation into a mysterious corporation’s schemes in a dystopian vision of the modern American city—zombies, robots, and genetic research gone haywire, oh my! Sounds like a rather desperate elevator pitch. The chapters also switch between various viewpoint characters, allowing for the reader to always know more than Donner does about what exactly is happening, which is a storytelling style used to more effect in cinema than in the novel.

But the problem with this type of writing is that it feels like a novelization, a translation of one piece of art into another form. Dempsey's style is clean and efficient, but I can't help but think I'd rather see this story than read it. The summer blockbuster rarely strays too far from the lowest common denominator, and Necropolis is a summer blockbuster of a novel: fun, flashy, and easily digested, succeeding by following the rules rather than trying to change the game.

Richard Larson's short stories have appeared in Subterranean, ChiZine, Strange Horizons, and many other venues. He also writes film criticism for Slant Magazine, in addition to reviewing books for Strange Horizons. Visit him online at http://www.rlarson.net.



Richard Larson's short stories have appeared in ChiZine, Electric Velocipede, Pindeldyboz, Vibrant Gray, and others. He also reviews books and movies, and he blogs at http://rlarson.typepad.com. He is currently a graduate student at New York University.
Current Issue
29 Nov 2021

It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that our donor's choice special issue for 2021 is titled—simply—Friendship.
The year before this, the girls at school had called her Little Lila .
Pictures of me that day are kept in the ship’s files, sent back to Earth to be used in my captors’ eventual war crimes tribunals.
Perhaps a new urban system of star navigation is needed
This world, covered in spectral ebullience, was tied together by bows of light
Are you a good witch / or a bad witch? / as if there’s an answer earned, inscribed in bubbles reflecting an inverse crown.
When does the pursuit of pure thought, pure idealism, pure escapism become detrimental?
Wednesday: The Best of World SF, Volume 1, edited by Lavie Tidhar 
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Strange Horizons
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29 Sep 2021
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