“After hours of Pick’s gin, the world was made of soft rubber; everything was hard to accomplish but nothing hurt too badly, so what the fuck.”
50’s noir detective vibes drip off the pages of The Electric Church, Jeff Somers’ riveting first novel and first entry in the saga of Avery Cates, gunner extraordinaire, and his struggle against The System. The scene above in Pickering’s gin-joint conjures up images of Bogart hunched over a bar as readily as Han blasting Greedo in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Mashing up flatfoot fiction with near-future dystopian sci-fi is bold move, so does he pull it off? First, let’s dial it back a notch.
The date is a few decades from now following a global upheaval known as The Unification. That’s right, one-world government arrived and it was sure bloody. Rather than freeing the people from their shackles the result of the ultimate centralisation of power has been to turn the world in Escape From New York on a planetary scale. The 1% lucky enough to possess monetary wealth live decadent lives, lording it up in their high castles and occasionally donning filthy disguise for the thrill of slumming it with the poor. Of which there are many. The rules are simple in this world: you’re either rich, a cop or less than zero.
For the latter, the 99%, life is brutish and short with lifespans over a few decades drawing admiration or disbelief. However you can always count on religion, Marx’s famed opiate, to prey on the desperate when times are dark. Enter The Electric Church, whose mission is to grant eternal life in this world to its followers – after all, even an eternity alive may not be enough to repent for our heinous sins. How exactly is this achieved? Simple – remove the brain and implant it in a cybernetic body, replete with sinister Auton-esque mask and unnecessarily violent attachments. These Electric Monks divide their time between proselytising on street corners and ushering the converted to their new existences, feared and mocked by the populace in equal doses yet protected by the ironclad religious protection act.
One dissatisfied denizen of the transformed New York in which the novel opens is Avery Cates, hired gun and prematurely jaded rebel with a penchant for the old, honourable ways of doing things. After a hit gone wrong Cates finds himself on the run from the vicious System Pigs, now a wanted cop-killer with his name on every bulletin board. He seems a sure thing for cashing in his chips at the ripe old age of 27 until an offer appears from an unlikely source. The head of the System Pigs own Internal Affairs bureau – the head honcho, the big cheese – will grant him immunity, a clean slate and an insane amount of money if he’ll assassinate Dennis Squalor, head of The Electric Church. It’s suicide, plain and simple, but he has no choice. The System Pigs will find him and proceed to tear him limb from limb, probably while alive, in repayment for killing their comrades. So Cates sets about assembling a team to help him sneak and fight their way past a global army of robots to the inner sanctum of the most heavily protected man on the planet. That’s an awful lot of shit to be flying around near such oversized fans…
If the set-up sounds equally insane and implausible then you’re absolutely correct and let me assure you – that’s part of the fun. The Electric Church is an oil-burning page-turner playing like a pulp novel yet with a serious literary bent. Jeff Somers obviously spent some large portion of his life wolfing down Hammett, Chandler and their lesser-known ilk and portrays bustling, seedy dives and wandering, down-on-their-luck loners with a natural ease. Cates is such a grim, sardonic anti-hero that he often seems in danger of falling into caricature before saving himself with his stark insights into the rigged nature of the game he’s forced to play.The team of broken, conniving rejects he rounds up as his crack team and the decaying world they inhabit all contribute to the atmosphere of hopelessness which all must overcome.
The Electric Monks themselves are a cornerstone of the novel. They’re what you would expect to come charging at you if William Gibson wrote an episode of Doctor Who; identikit automatons, serene on the surface but harbouring hidden power, endlessly repeating their insane litanies until they time comes to excavate your skull. A week after finishing The Electric Church I still find their frozen rictus grins lurking at the corner of my nightmares, their fearsomeness abated only by the deliciously snarky subtext that inside every religious drone was once a sane person, finally driven mad by the pressure of the nonsensical dogma pumped into their skulls.
As the first in a series The Electric Church does a solid job of setting up the background for the novels to come, bringing the major players in this shattered world into view while keeping enough hidden to encourage further exploration. As a stand-alone novel it’s equally worthy of attention, perfectly blending sci-fi and noir set-pieces with the most reluctant and resigned of hero figures It’s a fast read and none too taxing on the intellect but totally engaging throughout and leaves you feeling satisfied rather than as if you’d just visited sci-fi McDonald’s. Chalk me up for part two…