California Coldblood/Rare Bird Books, 2019
In a rare outing away from my reading diet of the supernatural and weird, I stray into the realm of science fiction-ish, dystopian-ish, cyberpunk-ish here with the recently-released Neon Empire, which although set in the future, builds a world that resonates with our modern times in terms of social media, corruption, and corporate greed.
Set not so far off from our present, social media and social currency is the basis of everything and everybody in this novel, which is set in the fictional desert city of Eutopia, a sort of glitzy conglomerate of replica cities pieced together on a piece of land belonging to the Navajos. It is referred to as an "integrated city," where tourists can get "Europe's greatest hits without having to go there." That is a necessity at the moment in time that this novel is set, since worries about political unrest on the European continent leave a lot of people unwilling to travel. So how does a celebrity or social media star keep his or her public abreast of his or her vacation doings? Take a trip to Eutopia where everything and anything does happen. More than a theme park, it is a place where people can "live-broadcast their lives" and are "incentivized" to do so; in Eutopia, "everybody has the chance to be a star." Giant screens exist everywhere on which ads run almost constantly, and between them there is "never a dull moment" -- car chases, scandals, crimes and people looking for stardom and social cache all find their way up onto the big screen. Eutopia also exists as entertainment for the young up-and-comers of the world; they can find and do anything there. On the streets, as main character Cedric Travers reveals,
"It was almost as if everybody was in a trance-like state, monitoring their social channels, connecting to billboards, transacting with each other."The only thing that is lacking seems to be reality; behind the scenes and unaware to the public, every movement in the city has been calculated and planned, trends are thoroughly analyzed, and decisions are made based on revenue and profit.
Cedric is a has-been film director and has come to Eutopia where two months earlier his wife Mila (who had been in on the creation of the city) had disappeared. His idea is that he'll stay long enough to pack up her belongings so he can start to try to put things behind him. Rumor has it that she was involved in a possible terrorist-linked bombing there, but there is no real information about her whereabouts. As he wonders what could have possibly drawn and kept her there, he becomes involved with two city mainstays: A'rore, the biggest, most popular social media influencer who has a great desire to keep herself at the top, and the rather shady police captain Monteiro who knows when to look away when certain crimes are committed. There is also a journalist, Sacha Villanova, who may be able to help him with his questions about his wife. Like Mila, though, it isn't long until Cedric also becomes drawn more deeply into Eutopia's "inner realm." Unfortunately for all concerned, it also isn't long until reality disrupts the fantasy ...
The world building is just terrific here, dynamic and strange all at the same time, offering a sense that yes, this could actually be a future reality, and I couldn't wait to see what the author was going to add to Eutopia itself as the story went along. The author, Drew Minh, also knows what he's talking about here -- his background is in digital advertising, so his knowledge of data analytics (which is a major part of this story) shines through.
The thing is that I couldn't quite find a narrative thread to latch on to. The blurb calls it a thriller, but I'm not quite sure I got that overall vibe here, and for me it was because of too many different elements in this story that didn't really mesh too well. I had thought, given the beginning of this novel and certain occurrences throughout the story that perhaps it was going to be about Cedric's search for what happened to Mila, but the way the novel ends (somewhat unfairly, if you ask me) makes it seem like that will likely be picked up in a sequel. Then there's an ongoing mystery that begins with the death of a man Cedric had only recently met, a strand that brings in both the police and Sacha's investigative skills. To me the weak link here is with the A'rore POV narrative; it tends to seriously detract attention from what otherwise might have been a good mystery set in a future landscape. I am a voracious crime and mystery reader, and what I've discovered over my many years is that sometimes it is true that less is more. That's definitely the case here.
I thank the publishers for my copy. Neon Empire is enjoying some very positive reader response, so it's probably just me being my picky reader self once more.