Review: Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh (2014)

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books / film noir

Shovel Ready

In a near-future New York City that has been ravaged by dirty bombs, climate change and massive depopulation, a former garbageman-turned-hired killer named Spademan plies his trade for a modest fee. The philosophically bent Spademan is somewhat understandably leery of learning too much about his clients and their targets as this could lead to complications, and what does it really matter in the end when his boxcutter is up against their throat? Most of the people that matter have either left the city, or retreated into the digital realm known as the “limnosphere”, anyway. But when he’s hired to track down and eliminate the daughter of a wealthy fire and brimstone mega-preacher, Spademan finds himself caught up in a case that will challenge him in every way, even ones he didn’t know were possible.

I’m a little bit torn on the world shown to us by this book. On the one hand, I really appreciated the subtle way that Sternbergh weaved in details about the decrepit state of the city without beating us over the head about it. Things like taxi-mounted Geiger counters, flooded, though still inhabited sections of the city and the complete lack of any dogs whatsoever really add to the creepy, cadaverous vibe he’s crafting here. It really resembles the kipple-strewn streets of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (although in that one people were leaving town for a new life on the off-world colonies) and I found this to be very satisfying. While Spademan prefers to stay across the river in his native New Jersey, most people who remain in the city either live in heavily-guarded fortresses, or in the ruins of palatial apartment buildings, giving the book a very cinematic quality as you can easily imagine these well-realized places in your mind. The reference to Occupy Wall Street in the form of a ragged and ineffective “protest” camp in the middle of Central Park was also a nice touch.

On the other hand, I could have done with a lot more detail about the limnosphere, the Second Life-esque virtual world that is the new haven for the rich, who’ve left their physical bodies behind in high-tech beds, tended by nurses and subsisting on IV bags. The rules of the linmosphere (and how to hack into it) are nowhere near as coherently laid out as Shovel Ready‘s cyberpunk forebears, William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. In fact, with all the religious iconography and powers floating around, I was actually reminded more of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim books, which concern a badass kicked out of Hell after a lifetime spent in the fighting pits. When a significant chunk of the latter half of the novel takes place in a realm in which we’re not entirely certain how anything works, the effect is not an increased tension or anticipation, it’s just confusion.

Spademan is a great character, a self-proclaimed “psycho” whose moral code is flexible enough for him to kill men and women (“I don’t discriminate”), but not children. Perhaps this is the new Marlowe we deserve these days, in the wake of “good” serial killers like Dexter, Hannibal, et al.? I enjoyed his gallows humour, and his musings about the state of the city being reflected back in terms of garbage. No one else is as fully-realized, though, with the possible exception of Spademan’s former evangelical-turned limnosphere hacker buddy Mark. I must admit I did like the reference to an on the cheap limnosphere den as being “Rick’s Place”, though, and I think I saw a nod to Neuromancer in the person of Mina Machina, recalling Molly Millions? She could have just as easily been a reference to any number of Warren Ellis characters as well, I guess.

As mentioned on the back by Austin Grossman, Ellis’ superb comic series Transmetropolitan is a great comparison to this book, as would his novels Crooked Little Vein and especially Gun Machine. Just make sure you have time to take a shower after reading this one.

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Media Consumption 2014 | This Nerding Life

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