Cal­lous hero in­hab­its bleak fu­ture

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - JEET HEER

The fu­ture used to gleam. The vi­sion of tomorrow of­fered in the ro­bot sto­ries of Isaac Asimov or in the Star Trek fran­chise is of a stain­less-steel world stream­lined and an­ti­sep­tic: A crisp, clean and con­trolled universe where pre­cise Eu­clid­ian lines shape the con­tours of hu­man cre­ation.

In op­po­si­tion to this fa­mil­iar prom­ise of a glit­ter­ing and smooth eon, sci­ence fic­tion has also given us a pow­er­ful counter-tra­di­tion proph­e­siz­ing that our prog­eny will ex­pe­ri­ence not just spiffy new gad­gets but also, in­evitably and in­escapably, wide­spread de­cay and di­lap­i­da­tion.

The prospect of a cor­roded fu­tu­rity, a tomorrow strewn with garbage and be­dev­illed by malfunctio­ning ma­chines, haunts many of the nov­els of Philip K. Dick, as well as films in­spired by his work such as Ri­d­ley Scott’s Blade Run­ner (1982) and the en­tire sub-genre of cy­ber­punk sci­ence fic­tion.

Adam Stern­bergh’s grip­ping de­but novel Shovel Ready, a genre-blend­ing noir thriller, bor­rows from sev­eral literary tra­di­tions but is par­tic­u­larly marked by the in­flu­ence of cy­ber­punk.

Shovel Ready is set in a near­future New York, reel­ing from not just one dev­as­tat­ing event (a ter­ror­ist dirty bomb ex­plod­ing in Times Square) but also a long drawn out “in­cre­men­tal apoc­a­lypse”: A down­ward spi­ral driven Adam Stern­bergh Crown by cli­mate change, xeno­pho­bic para­noia and the col­lapse of so­cial co­he­sion.

The city is sharply di­vided be­tween the poor ma­jor­ity and a rich mi­nor­ity who have re­treated into a type of cy­ber-gated com­mu­nity called the lim­no­sphere.

We’re given a guided tour of this bat­tered but still feisty New York by the nar­ra­tor of Shovel Ready, an erst­while garbage­man who now works as an as­sas­s­in­for-hire un­der the name Spade­man.

Nom­i­nally a crim­i­nal, Spade­man, like many a noir hero be­fore him, talks in a hard-boiled acer­bic voice, which be­lies his un­der­ly­ing de­cency.

Dur­ing the course of the novel, Spade­man finds him­self pro­tect- ing a damsel in dis­tress he was ini­tially hired to kill.

Stern­bergh’s debt to hard­boiled noir fic­tion strength­ens his affin­ity with cy­ber­punk, whose pre­mier prac­ti­tioner, Wil­liam Gib­son, pi­o­neered the fu­sion of edgy crime sto­ries that take place in the im­pend­ing fu­ture.

The hard shell of an egg serves to pro­tect some­thing pre­cious: the life of the al­most-born chick wait­ing to peck its way into the world.

Sim­i­larly, the hard-boiled voice of he­roes such as Spade­man (or his literary an­ces­tors Sam Spade and Philip Mar­lowe) func­tions as a shield and cover for a core com­mit­ment to a few prin­ci­ples of hon­our and loy­alty.

Mash­ing up sci­ence fic­tion with noir also al­lows Stern­bergh to tackle head-on the eco­nomic po­lar­iza­tion of con­tem­po­rary Amer­ica, a re­al­ity that the con­ven­tional bour­geois novel has dif­fi­culty ac­knowl­edg­ing.

As with al­most all sci­ence fic­tion, Shovel Ready is not an at­tempt to fore­see the fu­ture but rather a way of al­le­gor­i­cally ex­plor­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences of the re­cent past, which still baf­fle and st­ing.

One way to read Shovel Ready is as a glimpse into the in­ner life of New York as it ab­sorbed a se­ries of trau­mas, some pub­li­cized, some not: This is a New York of 9/11, of Hur­ri­cane Sandy, of a bil­lion­aire mayor whose so­lu­tion to ev­ery prob­lem is to turn the city into a playpen for the su­per-rich. Shovel Ready is a sharp, thought­pro­vok­ing thriller.

Shovel Ready

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