Near future New York. After two terrorists attacks where dirty bombs were employed several smaller attacks followed, which caused panick and climate changes. The Big Apple soon was abandoned by most, few remained, and class differencies divided remaining citizens into seperated ghettos. Poor started camping in not so long ago public spaces, and the rich retreated to the comfort of their homes, for the comfort you only needed a few bodyguards. Without any will to live in a dirty, dangerous city, the rich have chosen another reality, the limnosphere, Internet of the new type, where one can live a life he creates for himself. The more money you spend on virtual reality, the more real it will be. You don’t need to live in reality, your body in coffin-like bed will be taken care of by a hired nurse, and your home will be protected by bodyguards. If you thought of that.
If not, the your are an easy prey for a hired killer, who can crawl into your home and kill you in your sleep. This method is the favorite method of Spademan, the protagonist of this novel. He’s ex-garbage man, after one incident turned to murder-for-hire business. “I kill men. I kill women because I don’t discriminate. I don’t kill children because that’s a different kind of psycho.
I do it for money. Sometimes for other forms of payment. But always for the same reason. Because someone asked me to.” He doesn’r ask questions and he doesn’t need to hear clients’ stories. New client hires Spademan to track down young girl Grace Harrow, and kill her. The girl leaves a blood trail beside her, and when Spademan finally has caught up with her, he can’t kill her. Because she’s five month pregnant. He’s signed up to protect her from the client who hired him, he’s also girl’s father.
The novel is selling as a hired killer novel, which is misleading, because it isn’t. And that is the first step to disappointment. Spademan is only nominally a hired killer, soon after the start he turnes to the role of private eye in a cyberpunk world, honest knight on a white horse, who is ready to defend every girl. Sternbergh sould be on the same shelf, as such masters of hired killer novels like Thomas Perry, Max Allan Collins, Lawrence Block. “Shovel Ready” has only a few similarities with the works of this sub-genre, among them is powerful beginning where Spademan describes the rules of his work.
All in all, the book is one big cliché, mediocre cyberpunk thriller, with only one correction that it’s written almost in free verse and that Sternbergh doesn’t use quotation marks in dialogues. The main problem with this book, as I see it, is laziness of the wit and anbsense of enough real-life experience to write believably about fanastical world. For his world Sternbergh borrowed too familiar tropes and elements from old SF. His idea of virtual reality Maxtrix-style and retreat of the rich to virtual world while their bodies are taken care of is that old and was used so many times that rarely an author from SF community will use it. Half-abandoned, dirty New York is detailed with love and care, yet tis is more like an ode to the favorite city, writing with a nostalgic tone, than a proper world-building. Sternbergh lets too much nostalgie sink into his novel. Instead of creating new ideas Sternbergh utilizies a few old ones: the protagonist uses “old” Internet, reads newspapers, avoids the limnosphere, uses subway. The world-building of the city is so-so, it’s just dirtier and more corrupted version of NYC.
Employed for his own purposes old SF elements, plot-wise the author employs elements of thrillers and action novels. A hired killer, instead of killing his client, starts to protect a victim – We have seen a hundred times. A team of the protagonist’s helpers almost in it entirety came from a different sources. Pregnant runaway girl, crazy pastor, hired muscles, dead protagonist’s wife – Shovel Ready should be called novel-collage. Through these clichés Sternbergh tries to satirize class-divided world, only fails when his satire drowns in a large pool of blood, guts, and mindless action scenes tiring you out.
The plot is predictable from start to finish, and all what’s you are left with is to pay attention to the style. Sternbergh relies heavily on dialogues, and they are nothing outstanding, and experiments with the prise, writing short, abrupt sentences, similat to free verse. It works in some scenes (particularly in the beginning and when Spademan recalls his first victims), and fails in others. Dull thriller written in verse is still a dull thriller.
Spademan already became series character, yet after this debut you feel no need to pay attention to the series. Where is my shovel? I need to bury this book deep.