Shovel Ready: Excerpt from hardboiled dystopian thriller by Adam Sternbergh

Adam Sternbergh's debut novel, Shovel Ready, "has the grimy neon feel of Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan combined with a touch of Philip K. Dick’s gonzo cyberpunk," says Austin Grossman, author of You and Soon I Will Be Invincible. Read our exclusive excerpt.

By Adam Sternbergh at 10:13 am Tue, Jan 14, 2014

About Shovel Ready: Spademan used to be a garbage man. That was before the dirty bomb hit Times Square, before his wife was killed, and before the city became a blown-out shell of its former self.

Now he’s a hitman.

In a near-future New York City split between those who are wealthy enough to “tap in” to a sophisticated virtual reality, and those who are left to fend for themselves in the ravaged streets, Spademan chose the streets. His new job is not that different from his old one: waste disposal is waste disposal. He doesn’t ask questions, he works quickly, and he’s handy with a box cutter. But when his latest client hires him to kill the daughter of a powerful evangelist, his unadorned life is upended: his mark has a shocking secret and his client has a sordid agenda far beyond a simple kill. Spademan must navigate between these two worlds—the wasteland reality and the slick fantasy—to finish his job, clear his conscience, and make sure he’s not the one who winds up in the ground.

The way it happened was, it started as business software. Some kind of fancy teleconferencing gimmick. Clunky helmets, silly goggles, but once you plug in, it was pretty amazing. 3D around a table. Avatars that look surprisingly like you. Pick a tie, any color. Your choice. Dreams really do come true.

That was maybe ten years back.

And if we’ve learned anything in this once-proud world, it’s that once someone figures out how to do something as miraculous as that, it’s only a matter of time before someone else soups it up so you can use it to suck a horse’s cock. In pretend land.

Or run a brothel. Or be a holy Roman emperor.

In pretend land.

Soon people were running around, half-centaur, or space-alien furry, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or what have you. Fucking Chewbacca.

Literally fucking Chewbacca.

Then they got rid of the helmets and goggles and made the whole thing about a thousand times more convincing and all you had to do was get in a bed. But beds are expensive. From basic model to deluxe silver bullet. The basic ones are just tricked-out cots, but the top end are like shiny half-coffins, personal escape pods, with a bunch of touch screens to guide you into the dream, sensors to put you under. Full immersive experience.

As real as real.

That’s the pitch.

As for the specs, I can’t tell you. I’m not an IT type. And I’ve only been in a bed a few times.

Not the deluxe kind either.

Anyway, they figure out that this is clearly where the money is. But the bandwidth required is huge. So they build another network, call it the limnosphere, everything shifts, and they leave the boring old Internet for the rest of us. Internet goes to seed, of course, but the rich don’t care, because the rich are now lost in the limnosphere. It’s like the Internet but better, much better, because it’s an Internet you can live inside. Or the rich can. The costs are astronomical, of course, but then again, that’s why they call them the rich.

After that, the math is pretty easy. Thirteen hours in first class from New York to Tokyo, or slip into a bed and hold your meeting in minutes, with you at the head of the board table, glowing like a gladiator pumped up on steroids and Cialis. Drop twenty thousand on diminishing returns at the plastic surgeon, mending the same old curtains, or spend it on a month-pass to the limnosphere, sashaying down Park Avenue like Marilyn Monroe’s prettier sister. With a leopard’s tail.

In pretend land.

Adam Sterbergh's Shovel Ready is available from Amazon.

Still, it was just part of life for the first while. An addictive, maddening, seductive, destructive part of life, but part of life. They called it limning, or tapping in, or going off-body, or whatever, and most people dipped in and out. For the first while.

But after the second attacks and the dirty bomb? Then the rich just up and disappeared. White flight, except they didn’t go anywhere. They just drew the curtains and retired to their beds full-time. Hire a nurse to check your vitals, sign up for the weekly feed-bags, station armed guards to watch the gates, and goodnight moon. Goodnight stars. Goodnight world.

That was maybe five years ago.

My point being, usually how this works is I get a name, find an address, let myself in quietly, and introduce myself politely to an old man’s atrophied body in a coffin that’s already half-assembled. Even if the old man is only thirty. Feed-bags will keep you alive, but they won’t help you keep your youthful glow. Or your hair. When you start limning full-time and go on permanent bed- rest, you pretty much leave your body behind.

So you lie there, half-mummified and lightly drooling. And unfortunately for you, someone back here in the nuts-and-bolts world has decided they can’t let that grudge slide after all. And they found my number. And I found you.

Quick slit with the box-cutter and it’s all over.

Except maybe not. Not in the dream. There is a theory, unprovable I guess, that when you die, there’s a last little burst of neural activity. The brain’s last helpless, hopeless little sigh. Normally, this would be your blown kiss to a cruel world as you exit, stage left.

Yes, I did a play in high school. Mitch in Streetcar, if you must know. Would have made a better Stanley.

But if you’re in the limnosphere, in the dream, at that last moment, this little burst of brain activity loops. Your final seconds skip forever like a record. Even after they unplug the mummy and cart it to the furnaces. You remain as a data burp, hiccupping, some tiny line of code still in the dream. And you don’t know this. That’s the theory. You’re just stuck in that last moment, an eternal right fucking now, endlessly repeating for however long the batteries of this planet hold their juice.

No one knows if it’s true, of course, because how would you test it? They say they have programmers combing the code for these little hiccups, but most of their resources are on other things. Like developing newer, better, more tactilely realistic horse cocks.

But it’s true enough that some people try to game it. After awhile they’re not happy enough with just the dream. They pick a program, their ultimate fantasy. Movie star. Fuck your neighbor. Crowd roar when you take the podium on Inauguration Day. Or sight the podium in your rifle-scope. I don’t know. That one fantasy you can never say out loud to anyone. The one moment you would happily live in forever.

They time it out to the second. Hire someone to stand by. Lean in. Make sure the lids are fluttering. Clock hits zero. Put you down.

Sounds weird, I know. But then again, people used to hang themselves while jerking off.

Funny thing is, most people choose real-life memories. Your husband turns around in the airport, back from the war, and it’s really him. Your miracle mother comes out of her coma. You cut class and the bedroom door swings open and your high-school crush finally drops her dress. What people want is to live in that heart-swell of I can’t believe this is happening, over and over again.

Black-market agencies sell this service. Split-second timing. Our watchers are the industry’s best. Results guaranteed.

If they fail, who’s going to tattle? You’re lost in a loop somewhere, your needle bobbing on the inner edge of the record, at the far shore of a vast ocean of black.

So you better hope they loop the right moment.

Because if they miss, that person standing over you, watching you fall into the dream, if they miss, even by a moment, half a moment, or just a breath, then you’re stuck, and your husband never turns around and you never know if he made it, or your mother stays sunk in her coma with you anchored bedside worrying, or you stare at that bedroom door forever, knob trembling, wondering what’s about to come in.

I choose not to believe it. Seems too convenient, and besides, if I buy that, then I might believe I’m not ending someone. I’m just pausing them, maybe in the happiest moment they’ve ever had.

That seems cheap. It’s a cop-out. So I think of it the other way.

Most of them have already given up on this world, the nuts-and-bolts world. This party’s over and they’ve moved on to the after-party. They’ve left their bodies behind.

I’m just sweeping up.

Shovel Ready

Text © 2014 Adam Sternbergh. Permission to run excerpt granted by Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Photograph: Jeff Lazell

Published 10:13 am Tue, Jan 14, 2014

About the Author

Adam Sternbergh is the culture editor of The New York Times Magazine. Formerly an editor-at-large for New York, his writing has been featured in several other publications including GQ, The Times of London, and on the radio program This American Life. He lives in Brooklyn and is at work on a second Spademan novel.

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