Callous hero inhabits bleak future
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.