In Adam Sternbergh's novel Shovel Ready, the world has gone to shit after a dirty bomb hit New York — but the really horrifying part isn't the squalor on the streets or the random violence. It's the virtual world that the rich have escaped to, and the virtual afterlife that one televangelist is trying to build.
Cyberpunk and noir go hand in hand, pretty much since the beginning of the cyberpunk sub-genre. Most recently, Richard K. Morgan had a pretty great run of nourish cyber-thrillers in his Takeshi Kovacs series.
But in Shovel Ready, Sternbergh adds a couple of new and pretty interesting elements: 1) A strong focus on the post-apocalyptic "real" world, where the people who can't afford to hang out in cyberspace live. 2) A heavy emphasis on religion, showing how religious people use virtual spaces as a tool to shape both the real and the virtual worlds to their own ends. The result is a pretty uniquely sardonic thriller that serves up lots of barbs along with its plot twists.
Shovel Ready follows a protagonist known only as Spademan, who used to be a garbage collector and is now a professional hitman. He has a whole system to keep himself anonymous and ensure that he doesn't know anything about the people he's killing. He's kind of a psycho, partly as a result of a series of tragedies that happened to him before and after the Times Square dirty bomb, but he's also a familiar example of the "anti-hero with a code" who tends to populate this kind of novel.
What makes Spademan somewhat unusual, especially in a novel about virtual reality, is that he's sworn off the stuff. He used to be a VR addict before his wife died, but now he refuses to go into virtual reality at all — which makes him the ultimate outsider in a novel about people who spend a lot of their time inside little beds, living out their virtual fantasies.
You can read an excerpt where Sternbergh writes about the rise of virtual reality, and how it became the preferred existence of the wealthy and anyone else who could figure out a hack, over at BoingBoing.
Obviously, a world where the rich live in amazing, real-seeming cyberspaces and everybody else lives in the gutter is rife for social commentary about the 99 percent and the 1 percent, in the vein of Neill Blomkamp's Elysium. But part of what makes Sternbergh's novel pretty uniquely engaging is that it stays completely grounded in the New York area, and the dystopian ruined New York is a major character in this novel. Sternbergh himself is culture editor of the New York Times Magazine and a former contributor to New York, and his knowledge of the city and its surrounding area animates every sparsely described moment of this book. The world of Shovel Ready feels lived in and completely convincing, from the squalor of Red Hook to the devastation of Times Square to Spademan's home in Hoboken.
In Shovel Ready, Spademan gets hired by a televangelist named T.K. Harrow to kill Harrow's runaway daughter Grace, and he soon finds himself getting drawn into the sleazy world of Harrow's megachurch. Harrow is creating a digital Heaven where people can go without having to die first, called Paved With Gold, and it should surprise nobody that his computer-generated afterlife is completely rotten and corrupt — but the revelations about Paved With Gold, when they arrive, are shocking and disturbing. In fact, Sternbergh's sharpest social satire has nothing to do with the disparity between rich and poor, and everything to do with the awfulness of organized religion.
We've seen cybernetic afterlifes before — many, many times — but we've seldom seen a vision of a rotten Heaven as terrible as Paved With Gold.
And the great strength of Shovel Ready is its sarcastic, laconic voice. The whole thing is written in short, sharp one-sentence paragraphs, with no distinction between people's speech and other stuff. (No quotation marks, in other words.) The incredibly terse style lets Sternbergh pepper you with one-liners and gives the sick little moments maximum impact, although it may not be for everybody. Here's a sample (more here):
First body lays splayed out on the stretcher, bloody and neglected, and it's not like TV. No one solemnly says a prayer or pulls a sheet up over his head. These EMS guys have other things to worry about, like rolling up another gurney and pulling the second body from the van.
Also a man. Also mangled.
Signs of serious knife-work.
I ask the texting cop what happened. He doesn't even look up from his phone.
Who knows? Lovers' spat? Some random psycho? Ask me, smells like some homo 69 gone very wrong.
I wince. Play squeamish.
Looks like those guys got slashed to ribbons.
Sometimes passions run high.
Cop looks up finally.
Human garbage lives around here? Take your pick. I'm just surprised whoever did this didn't torch the van. Would have saved us a trip. Let fire worry about it.
How long's that van been here?
No more than a few hours, maybe. Only got called in because some thugs pried the back open, looking to loot it, and got spooked. Found more than they expected and phoned 911. Not until they'd stolen both stiffs' wallets, of course. And stripped out the stereo.
Phone chirps again. New text. Cop smirks again.
I say thanks as I retreat back into the crowd.
Don't really worry about him remembering my face.
I'm not that memorable.
Just a garbageman.
So yeah, it's pretty insanely noir, although not at all reminiscent of classic noir authors like Raymond Chandler or Ross McDonald, who would write these great descriptive paragraphs full of intense amounts of detail and atmosphere.
In any case, Shovel Ready is a very fast read — you can probably zip through it in two or three hours, after which you'll be left with some gruesome images in your head and a vague sense of unease about the future. Which are good things to be left with, for sure.
Unfortunately, the book starts to wobble a bit in its final third — Sternbergh's first person narrator suddenly starts narrating lots of events that he personally did not witness, which turns the narrative extremely choppy as he pivots between first person and third person omniscient. (That might only bother POV nerds, though.) More seriously, some of the plot twists in the final act seem to come out of nowhere and don't feel entirely supported by what's come before, and the whole thing starts to feel a bit random and convenient. These feel very much like typical problems of a first novel.
The good news is, the character of Spademan and his snarky observations do carry you forward, and there are enough revelations towards the end that feel both shocking and supported by the story, that Shovel Ready still winds up feeling like a great read, and its world still manages to hold you in its dirty clutches until the violent, fascinating conclusion.