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Review © 2009 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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[Mild spoilers.]

You know what the most frustrating thing in all the world is to a reviewer? It's to come across a book so fresh, so thrilling, so inventive, so ineluctibly kickass, that you're going along thinking you've come upon a real discovery...only to have to end up penalizing the whole thing at the end on technical fouls. James Knapp's debut State of Decay should have been this year's KOP, and it comes agonizingly close to being one of the most exciting books on the racks in ages. Which is why it's such a letdown to watch it collapse into what's called "fridge logic," or what Alfred Hitchcock termed "the icebox moment": that burst of epiphany that occurs after the movie's over, when you're grabbing a beer out of the fridge, that what you've just witnessed barely makes a goddamn bit of sense. It has driven better men than I to their knees in despair.

If anything, State of Decay is undone by too much plot. It spins a tale of a conspiracy so vast that its actors are motivated to do things beyond reason, for reasons that are probably obscure even to them. What, exactly, is to be gained by what the bad guys are up to is the big question here. And it's a question that, infuriatingly, is never answered to any degree of satisfaction. When the curtain falls over chaos, disorder, and cities in flames, you want to know why. You close the book without really ever finding out.

Here's the cool part. Set in an indeterminate near future, State of Decay posits an America so embroiled in foreign wars — one of the plot's obscurities that does work is in never detailing where these wars are going on, for how long or why, which serves as a kind of commentary on the absurd futility of such wars in the first place — that an entirely new class system has emerged rewarding those who serve with higher-tier status and rights. One of those rights is to choose resurrection after death as a zombie, or revivor, and perform your service then in lieu of serving in life.

Knapp's revivors are not the mindless brain-snacking undead automata of a million cheesy movies. They retain their cognitive function, more or less, with the help of a cyber-brain-implant setup. The story begins when federal agent and veteran Nico Wachalowski's investigation into the illegal trafficking of revivors into the US — some wealthy sickos want undead sex slaves — unexpectedly turns up evidence of illicit shipments of military weaponry as well as fully-conditioned military revivors. As his investigation expands, it dovetails with another. Nico's ex-girlfriend Faye Desalia is a cop on the trail of a serial killer, whose victims to date do not appear to have any obvious connection. That is, not until she and Nico put their heads together. Trails of evidence seem to point back to the government's #1 contractor for revival technology, one Heinlein Industries. That sounds like a pretty on-the-nose name for an evil corporation, but not as much as if it had been, say, Romero Industries.

Up to this point, everything is spectacular. Knapp displays exceptional skill at creating an immersive, richly textured world and bringing it to life with an atmosphere of tension as thick as L.A. smog on a hot August day. Grim-n-Gritty™ near futures have long been a tired SF cliché, but Knapp is good enough at realizing his own that he manages to evoke fond memories of when such futures were still daring and cool.

Where State of Decay starts to decay is in Knapp's complicating it all to excess through the introduction into the plot of psychic telepaths. This would be okay, I suppose, were it not for the fact that we already have zombies, and the existence of these beings is given an imaginative and entirely plausible set of explanations. Yet we are then asked to accept that there are also people — hordes of them, apparently — with a vast array of psychic powers and that this is just how they are. Also, because they possess these powers, Knapp wants us to accept that "telepathic = magic" and we won't need good narrative justifications for things they do that are conveniently in the plot's interests.

For instance, one of the story's four viewpoint characters is Zoe Ott, an antisocial telepathic girl whose entire life evidently consists of lying around her filthy shithole of an apartment getting wasted. You'd think she'd have to do something to earn a living and pay rent on the place, beyond living off her late father's insurance settlement, but I suppose not. One power that is of particular importance to the plot is that these telepaths can erase and manipulate people's memories. So maybe Zoe does that to her landlord every month. Anyway, a series of dreams motivates Zoe to contact Nico and assist him in his investigation. Why Zoe's having dreams about people she's never met, let alone being motivated by such dreams to seek them out despite her disinclination to do anything but sit around drunk, is one of those things Knapp expects us to roll with, I suppose, by virtue of Zoe's psychicness. Zoe does what she does because the plot needs her to.

To keep from prattling to epic length, I'll sum up that State of Decay, despite a great deal of exciting action and some themes that touch upon the chaos of a world living under the threat of terrorism and unseen enemies, just dangles too many unanswered questions. It's not necessarily a bad thing to leave unresolved issues in your story, especially in series fiction, where that's expected. But too many crucial details remain hazy. It's not as though we needed solid answers spelled out for everything. But better clarity would have made all these lingering mysteries tantalizing rather than exasperating.

How does Zoe telepathically contact, let alone exercise total mind control over, people she's only seen in dreams? Like the fourth viewpoint character, the cage-fighting riot grrl Calliope Flax, whose role in the story is disappointingly reduced to running errands for the other characters and giving them rides on her motorbike. The climax hinges on the memory-altering talents of the telepaths. But Knapp never makes their motives clear. Is this a specific, organized group of telepaths (apart from, say, pathetic loners like Zoe)? And if so, who leads them? And how does the person who's sending revivors out to kill them know whom to kill, and in what order? And what do the telepaths seek to gain, exactly, from altering the memories of people prior to their revival? Nico explicitly asks these questions, only to be given the non-answer that "It served someone's purpose" by a character who immediately makes it clear he knows enough to have given a far more concrete answer — but Nico strangely does not pin this person down and demand that answer. A seasoned federal agent would have.

Well, in a novel, you serve your purpose — and your readers' — by offering a satisfying and whole reading experience, not just a big tease that comes up empty at the payoff. State of Decay left me in a state of dismay.

Followed by The Silent Army.