The Big Idea: Adam Christopher
Posted on December 29, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 22 Comments
Adam Christopher’s debut novel Empire State isn’t just a novel — it’s the start of an interesting initiative by his publisher Angry Robot to let readers into the parallel New York Christopher has created. Christopher’s own journey to the Empire State was a long and twisting one itself, spanning continents and book genres in equal measure. He’s here now to talk about his travels: where he’s been, and where his creation will go next.
As much as I hate to admit it, I’m a late developer. I didn’t read my first comic book until I was 25. I didn’t read my first piece of classic detective fiction until I was 30.
There, I’ve said it.
Well… that’s not strictly true – when I was about seven I had three comics: an issue of Batman, an issue of Iron Man, and one of those big Marvel A-Z compendium things. I was utterly fascinated by that, and read it from cover to cover and back again while telling my mum I was going to write a comic one day. But me and comics grew apart, and weren’t to meet again for about sixteen years when in 2003, I decided to pick up an issue of the British weekly SF anthology comic 2000AD. I remembered a friend at high school reading them under his desk at the back of class a decade before, and I remembered him showing me a one-shot story about Marconi inventing the radio to talk to his dead brother. That startling story had stuck in my mind, and when I stumbled across the latest issue on the shelf, I knew I had to take a look.
I was hooked. Instantly, shazam! I swear that a bolt of magical lightning struck right there in the bookstore as soon as I turned the first page, but unfortunately I still can’t juggle Buicks so that might just have been in my head. But it was a life changing moment. From 2000AD I discovered American superhero comics, and I knew there is where I belonged, that’d I’d come home. Although a latecomer, comics are now a passion for me as strong as genre fiction.
Empire State is my debut novel. It’s a science fiction detective story, a noir with superheroes set in Prohibition-era New York and another place, a foggy, wet and thoroughly miserable alternate version of Manhattan called the Empire State. It’s a book about identities, loyalties, justice, and trust. Its hero is a down-and-out detective in the Empire State, who gets called to investigate a missing person but ends up detecting a parallel universe – ours. There are rocket-powered crime-fighters, there are giant airships made of iron, and there is a conspiracy that crosses dimensions.
The first seed of Empire State was sown on a flight from Manchester, England, to San Francisco sometime in 2009. Y’know how it is on long-haul flights – it’s boring, uncomfortable; you get dehydrated and sleep-deprived. It was on that trip that I read my first Raymond Chandler novel, The Big Sleep…
Shazam, again. Magic lightning at 36,000 feet. The Big Sleep blew me away – sure, Chandler was a pulp writer, sure contemporaries called him a hack, pointing to his embarrassing past writing for mystery magazine Black Mask. But boy, could he write. So as we cruised onwards to California and I drifted off after perhaps one too many free champagnes, I remember lamenting the fact that while Chandler was a heck of a guy, it was a shame he never wrote science fiction. Raymond Chandler with robots, I thought. Wouldn’t that have been swell?
Somewhere over the Atlantic, the Empire State was born.
At that point, I’d written two novels already – a horror steampunk thing that is (perhaps wisely) still in the trunk and an all-out widescreen superhero epic called Seven Wonders, which Angry Robot is, oddly enough, publishing later in 2012 after Empire State. I was ready to start the next project and try something a little broader, a little weirder. Something which included a little of everything I liked – comic book superheroes, a bit of steampunk, a lot of weird science fiction. And, thanks to the adventures of Philip Marlowe, I knew I wanted to write a pulp detective.
It wouldn’t work, I thought, couldn’t work. I was ready to shelve it and move on, but a chance encounter with a mistyped Amazon search query gave me my hero: Rad Bradbury, later to become the slightly less distracting Rad Bradley.
With that slip of the keyboard, Rad appeared fully formed in my mind – here was a pulp detective, an ex-boxer who is older now and a little gone to seed, and he knows it but that doesn’t stop him doing his darndest to make things right. Rad likes his drink and hates Prohibition, but he believes there is something good in his dark and dull home city, the Empire State. A hardboiled fighter of injustice not afraid to use his fists when needed. A straight-talker who doesn’t like being messed around.
The perfect star for my science fiction detective novel.
And then it all made sense. From Rad came a whole bunch of new connections I’d never seen – how pulp detectives truly belonged to the 1930s, exactly the same era in which the superheroes of the Golden Age of comics first took flight. Throw in Manhattan trapped in the weirdness of Prohibition, with bootleggers and gangsters, fast cars and Tommy guns, and then take the whole shebang and exaggerate, extend, twist, until I got a decayed, corrupted parallel universe reflection of New York City. The Empire State.
I had my Big Idea. “Raymond Chandler meets the Rocketeer in Gotham City” might be a bit of a mouthful for an elevator pitch, but it sure did fit. I began to write…
A year later and I sold the finished book to Angry Robot, who turned out to have their own Big Idea. Empire State would be the first novel to be used for Worldbuilder, a creative commons-licensed “expanded universe” project managed by the mighty Mur Lafferty. With Worldbuilder, readers can contribute their own creations based around and set in the world of Empire State – fiction, art, photography, comics, music, radio drama, you name it – the best of which will be selected for inclusion in a series of quarterly anthologies. We’ve also got some professional friends involved: Hugo-award winning writer and puppeteer Mary Robinette Kowal is doing a toy theatre/puppet show; acclaimed writer James Patrick Kelly is doing a short story; there’s a tabletop RPG being constructed, while a photographer has unearthed stills from the long-lost 1946 film noir adaption of the book. And that’s just the beginning.
It’s going to be wild. From an accidental birth, Rad Bradley is going to have adventures beyond the reach of my keyboard.
I can’t wait.
Empire State: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s
Read a sample chapter here. Follow the author on Twitter.
I’m not sure whether it’s an intentional discount, a pricing algorithm war, or simply good luck, but the Amazon and B&N pages for this book are both currently listing very low prices for both print and e-reader editions. Hope it spurs a lot of interest for Mr. Christopher’s work.
(I haven’t read the original Chandler books, either; and only a handful of the noir-like things like Lethem’s Gun, With Occasional Music and VanderMeer’s Finch. And I too had one of those 15-20 year hiatuses in comics, going from a few 80s GI Joe vs. Transformers to last year’s Cowboy Ninja Viking. There, I said it, too.)
Mur is such a great person to head the Worldbuilder side of things here. Not only has she written her own superhero novel (Playing For Keeps) but she’s, as Adam Christopher says, “mighty”. the MRK and JPK projects sound like solid first forays into the expanded world. Good luck with the novel/world launch, Mr. Christopher!
I got this on Tuesday. I’m liking it a lot so far.
That’s just how Angry Robot does their books, most of which I highly recomend.
Man, Angry Robot is such a cool publisher. They are really at the forefront when it comes to innovative ideas and reader interaction.
Already out in the UK, I am going to have to have this one. I hope the paper smells of something indefinable. Real pulp should be printed on pulp. Good luck with the new world.
Just one quibble. Why would you want to leave Manchester?
This is one of those times I begin to suspect that somehow, magically, a perfect stranger has written something just for me. This book sounds like every weird and wonderful thing I love, all folded together! And then you tell me there’re plans for a publisher-fostered creative fandom?
It’s good that it’s not really possible to die of Awesome, because this looks like a fatal dose for yours truly. To the kindle store; thence to the comfy reading spot, and on to the Worldbuilder!
I pre-ordered this when I read about it earlier on your site –the 2011 Shopping Guide. According to Amazon, it is due to arrive today! Yay!
Want want want want….oh, hey, only five bucks? **click** Bought it.
This is why I love the Big Idea pieces!
It should be on its way to my Kindle right now.
Seems to me that Angry Robot is doing on purpose what happened with Eric Flint’s 1632 by accident. Hope it works out, and I’ll have my eye out for the book.
Had Empire State on order already. Don’t remember why. Oh … yeah … What Donna said.
On my Kindle now.
Another cool book from Angry Robot! They sure know how to find good auhors with fresh ideas! That is the only publisher site I frequent. Their pricing is great too. Empire Sate was already in my wish list too.
I feel so fortunate to have found this blogsite- these “Big Idea” selections have introduced me to so many wonderful authors that I will soon have to purchase an e-reader. In the meantime, I’ll be purchasing this book. It sounds exactly like the kind of thing I’ve been looking for.
Thanks for the kind comments! I hope people enjoy the book – I certainly enjoyed writing it!
If anyone is interested, in addition to the links John provided, Angry Robot have their own ebook store, where you can buy Empire State as a DRM-free epub, with no geographical restrictions.
It just arrived yesterday, thanks.
I put this on my list. I’m looking forward to it.
Just ordered it. Anyone that mentions the “Raymond Chandler meets the Rocketeer in Gotham City” when describing their book gets a purchase from me.
I’m enjoying Chapter One already. Typically, I don’t reach for comic book type novels, but this one is well-written and fun! Looking forward to reading the rest. Well done, Mr. Christopher.
Book Marketing Manager: Cathedral of Dreams, Terry Persun
I loved this one and look forward to what’s next.
Sadly, I can’t say this is a good book so far. About 2/3rds of the second chapter is exposition, and I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the main character. I bought it because Chandler got mentioned, but there’s nothing in here (so far) even vaguely Chandleresque, certainly not the writing or characterization. Ah, well, only cost five bucks!
I am excited about this book! and I LOVE the cover. just excellent.
I’m probably going to pick this up on Nook in a minute, but just had to say I’m experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance from the conflation of the Thirties as a whole with the Prohibition Era. Considering when it got repealed, it’s really only the very early Thirties, before Chandler started getting published. I mean, sure, we can easily assume that one of the main points of divergence for this alternate history is no passage of the 21st, but still…. Chandleresque hard-boiled noir isn’t actually contemporaneous with Prohibition as written and published in our experience.