Night Shade Books, 2011, 320 pages
Paul Donner is a NYPD detective with a drinking problem and a marriage on the rocks. Then he and his wife get dead – shot to death in a “random” crime. 50 years later, Donner’s back – revived by the Shift, a process that reanimates dead DNA.
The Shift has turned the world upside down. This new “reborn” underclass is not only alive again, they’re growing younger. Beneath the protective geodesic Blister, clocks run backwards, technology is hidden behind a noir facade, and you can see Bogart and DiCaprio in The Maltese Falcon III.
In this retro-futurist world of flying Studebakers and plasma tommy guns, Donner searches for those responsible for the destruction of his life. His quest for retribution leads him to the heart of the mystery surrounding the Shift’s origin and up against those who would use it to control a terrified nation.
This book has a very high Cool Factor and a fast-moving, high concept plot with many twists, including some unexpected ones. Michael Dempsey is a screenwriter, so it's not surprising that the plot of Necropolis reads like a Hollywood script. It's another one of those books that the author was clearly casting for the film version in his head.
It's also very, very stupid.
The premise: a virus called "The Shift" can reanimate dead DNA. No one knows where it came from, but most assume it was some sort of bioterrorism weapon. It literally brings the dead back to life. Anyone who's still got mortal remains can be affected (somehow the virus causes all the flesh and organs and everything to grow back as well), so New York City in 2054 has Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, and various other dead celebrities kicking it in their "reborn" lives. Somehow the virus only affected the New York City metro area, and the government "contained" it by quarantining the city. A corporation called Surazal pretty much runs the city, and has built a "Blister" dome to make sure no one can get in or out.
So, fine, I will suspend my disbelief and accept that a virus can bring the dead back to life. But a wall around New York City? A quarantine of the boroughs? Dude, have you looked at a map of New York City?
Tell me how the fuck you build a wall around that?
A cop named Paul Donner gets shot in (our) modern day and wakes up forty years later to discover he is one of the "Reborn." "Reebs," even though they are quite human, have inexplicably become as hated as if they were brain-eating walking dead. In this futuristic New York (which does what a lot of bad movies do, and pretends that a big city can act like it's its own country that doesn't have to answer to the federal government, the Supreme Court or anything), it's technically illegal to (re)kill reebs, but pretty much any other kind of discrimination appears to have wafted right past the Constitution. There are "Reborn rights" organizations but no one cares. And the whole world is okay with this because they don't want the "Shift" virus getting out and contaminating the rest of the world. Because no one in the world would like the power to bring the dead back to life, especially if you age in reverse, which sucks if you're young, but is a pretty good deal if you croaked when you were in your eighties.
New York City, trapped in a corporate police state, has reverted to retro styles, which is an excuse for flying Studebakers and plasma tommy guns and thugs in zoot suits. It's a cute conceit so I was willing to roll with it, even if I found it unbelievable. (And cliched: naturally Harlem is all 1920s Harlem Renaissance, the Village is the 1960s, Brooklyn is gangland 40s, etc.)
His city. Look what they’d fucking done to it. It felt like he was looking at the cover of one of those pulp sci-fi magazines that had been popular in his father’s day — Weird Space Tales, or whatever. Oh, the city’s silhouette was basically the familiar conglomeration of skyscrapers — the Chrysler, the Empire State, they were still there. But they were now surrounded by pointed silver spires, tube-like shafts and swirling elevated cruiseways. Like someone had morphed Manhattan with Oz.
But the mid-21st century, besides having "Re-borns," also has fully sapient artificial intelligences called "smarties." Who despite being autonomous and having earned civil rights, all act like Good Robots with a single body even though they are digitalized and networked. They assume holographic forms, which it turns out, can have sex. Which was predictable as hell as soon as Paul Donner's smartie counselor, "Maggie," showed up. Maggie is a holographic Girl Friday, and of course she falls in love with Donner and they totally have holographic sex.
So, Necropolis is a sci-fi crime thriller going for a Chandleresque noir feel. Dempsey kinda gets the tone right, but he does so via the Frank Miller whoreswhoreswhores route. All the female characters in Necropolis are whores, sociopaths, sociopathic whores, or sexed up smarties with hearts of gold and twittering hyper-emotional lady-brains despite being a fucking Artificial Intelligence!
But, ya know, fine, I'll overlook the plot holes and the silliness of the premise and even the rank misogyny if the writing is decent (it's not terrible, but there are some real clunkers) and the story is fun and fast-paced (it mostly is). YMMV, but I own my guilty pleasures, and I've got a high tolerance for whores and stupid. I got pretty tired of the melodramatic overreactions every character had to every new revelation, and the minor characters who keep showing up just to be killed off, for no particular plot-related reason, got annoying, but hey. I read James Bond and superhero novels, too. Don't judge!
Then I got to the end, and the Big Reveals.
The part that I already had figured out was even dumber than I thought. The part I didn't have figured out was dumber than that.
Besides introducing an even more ridiculous concept than the Shift, and an utterly stupid Villainous Master Plan, the twists and betrayals in the final act required multiple people to suffer from Plot-Induced Stupidity on the order of forgetting that if you put your hand in a fire it will hurt.
This is a book that I could have enjoyed for guilty pleasure brain candy. Hey, flying cars and holographic AIs wandering around in a futuristic New York City with reanimated Beatles. What's not to love? Unfortunately, the plot failed so spectacularly that it wound up being all guilt and no pleasure.
Michael Dempsey can write a briskly-paced, imaginative story. But he needs more plot and less whores.
Have you read Necropolis?
Verdict: Necropolis tries to be hard-boiled SF noir, like a cross between Harry Dresden and Bladerunner. It would have been awfully cool if it had succeeded. It winds up being a hash of the worst aspects of Jim Butcher's writing and Sin City.
My complete list of book reviews.