Orbit, 2007, 465 pages, C$14.99 tpb, ISBN 978-0-316-02172-2
It’s possible to read far too much in a new publisher’s first book. In ten years, no matter what kind of critical reception awaits Jeff Somer’s The Electric Church, few people will even remember that it was the first title ever published by the US imprint of Orbit, the legendary UK SF publisher now replacing Warner Aspect on the North American continent after complex corporate shenanigans. The novel will ultimately stand on its own: we shouldn’t read too much in its failings.
It just wouldn’t do to dismiss US Orbit as a bread-and-butter publisher of conventional genre fiction based on a single data point, right?
It’s particularly unfair since Somer’s novel is unusually susceptible to external factors. In this case, I ended up reading The Electric Church too soon after Richard Morgan’s Black Man, and the similar territory covered by both novels (as “tough-guy Science Fiction”) made it hard not to make comparisons, usually to Somers’ detriment. While The Electric Church novel is not unsuccessful, it’s a surface read that seems to remain content with shoot’em-up heroics and cardboard dystopia.
So let’s try to focus on just this novel rather than burden it with expectations of what it means for the future of genre publishing in general.
The Electric Church largely takes place in the kind of dystopian future that can be appreciated only with gen-X cynicism and a thirst for fighting the power: After blurry social upheavals, most of New York has reverted to a city-wide blend of anarchy and authoritarianism, with criminals trying to fight their way through life and avoid being trapped by the debilitating weight of the central authority. Rich and happy people presumably exist elsewhere, but those might as well be abstractions for protagonist Avery Cates, a professional assassin who has survived an increasingly unlikely life in the streets of Manhattan.
As the novel begins, Cates narrowly escapes a police raid, reflects upon his sorry life and runs afoul of the titular Electric Church, a growing cult that promises eternal life to its recruits at the cost of their individual selves. Hints abound that the conversion process may not be entirely voluntary if ever the Church sets sight on a specific recruit. Cates soon gets the chance to dig deeper in the Church after getting a particularly dangerous assignment from an even more dangerous client.
The rest of the story is a familiar riff on caper crime drama and hardboiled heroics, with the recruitment of helpful rogues, early reconnaissance skirmishes, ever-rising stakes and dramatic shootouts. As Cates comes closer and closer to his targets, the body count rises and the guns get bigger. An increasing number of assassins crowd the cast of characters as The Electric Church leaves behind low criminality in favour of high insurrection.
I’ll give it as much: The style is deliciously noir and the pacing steadily pushes forward. Somers, through Cates-as-narrator, isn’t afraid to be hardboiled to the point of self-parody and it certainly gives a distinct flavour to the prose. The short chapters (written for serialisation) make for easy reading, and the plot is efficiently structured around its twists and revelations.
On the other hand, this is all very familiar material, without much depth or originality. The setting seems taken from the “it’s a good future for being a bad person” bin and smacks more of teenage video-game alienation (with guns and authority figures to shoot down) than any serious attempt to piece together an extrapolated future. Science-fiction as a backdrop to gunfights rather than a way to explore issues. It takes all kinds, I suppose: Most casual readers shouldn’t care as long as the entertainment value is there (and it is), but crankier readers who have seen this type of material many times before may feel their eyes glaze over. Superior alternatives like Morgan’s Black Man only deepen the dissatisfaction.
But I’m measuring the novel against unrealistic standards. Giving The Electric Church what it deserves without unfair comparisons, it’s a promising debut from a writer who’s got potential as long as he shakes off the more derivative aspects of his fiction. The prose is enjoyable, the characters are generally well-drawn and if the plot owes too much to familiar genre mechanics, it’s executed with competence. I may not be particularly looking forward to the upcoming direct sequel The Digital Plague, but I’ll pay attention whenever Somers breaks away from that particular dystopian future.
[June 2008: As feared, The Digital Plague is more of the same: While the adventure is slightly less linear, it kills off most of the secondary characters and ends up being tiresome. The prose style is still more interesting than the actual story, which promises much for Somers as soon as he gets out of the Avery Cates rut.]