The Electric Church by Jeff Somers
Orbit, 2007, 363pp, 9.99
ISBN 978-1-84149-615-3

This review first appeared in VECTOR
I could’ve sworn The Electric Church was the title of a song by original goth legends The Sisters Of Mercy, but it turns out that that particular track was only released in my head.  Still, if the Sisters are not an influence on Jeff Somers then plenty of similarly gloomy folks certainly are.

Set in a jaw-droppingly dystopian Blade Runner-style future (and that’s not just a lazy comparison, there are a great many similarities between the two), The Electric Church takes place some 20 years after ‘Unification’, which seems to have been a particularly horrific realisation of the World Government model beloved of much Golden Age sf.  Great swathes of cities all over the world are dilapidated burnt-out shells of their former selves following huge riots against Unification, riots that would seem to have been perfectly justified since the post-Unification world really sucks.  The rich are stinking rich, the poor are dirt poor, and seldom do the twain ever meet.  The only real advance made since our own present day seems to be in the area of flying cars, so it’s not all bad.

Except it is.  It’s so bad, in fact, that its citizens are flocking to join the Electric Church and gain eternal life by having their brains rehoused in creepy plastic cyborg bodies so as to spend eternity proselytizing about the advantages of this.  It shows how bad things have got when this is seen as a desirable prospect.

Avery Cates is a Gunner – a hit man – and a good one.  At 26 years of age he’s pretty old in general for the post-Unification world, but is a positive Methuselah for his profession.  Cates is having a catastrophic week following 21 years of merely bad ones: not only is he mistakenly wanted for killing a SSF cop – the Gestapo of this Brave New World – but he’s been framed by the actual murderer, one of the Electric Church’s cyborg monks.  This is unusual to say the least, because the monks, whilst weird, have always been peaceful.  A man already living on the edge, Cates is tipped headfirst over the precipice, before being approached by the last person he ever expected bearing him an offer of the last job he ever expected...

The Electric Church, to begin with at least, is a taut noir thriller. Cates’ interior monologue of grim desperation counterpointed by a slightly ill-fitting honour is gripping and oddly appealing.  It has some snappy dialogue and some appealingly flippant turns of phrase, the best of which are used for the chapter titles.  Somers can obviously write, then – he certainly had me hooked!  Where the book falls down is in his plotting.  Once our anti-hero gets beyond trying to survive for the next few minutes and the reader is allowed to wonder about the wider implications of the world he inhabits, then things start to go downhill.

The biggest elephant in the room for me was the question: how on earth did things end up like this?  There are a lot of superficial similarities to Philip K. Dick and Richard Morgan’s writing, but Morgan has a finely developed political sensibility and I can understand how and why his future dystopias have come about. There’s a sense of inevitability behind them that The Electric Church lacks, and I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief over the triumph of the mysterious Unification 20 years previously; it just seemed too awful for people to have ever allowed, and continue to allow, to happen.

Speaking of things being too awful – Cates’ world and his life within it starts off being grim, but the dial is quickly turned up to ‘dreadful,’ and then up again to  ‘unbearable’ within a couple of chapters.  Nothing good ever happens to Cates ever.  He is subject to such an endless litany of pain, misery and abuse that just reading this book makes you want to call the Samaritans.

The Electric Church is easily at its best when up close and personal, so it’s a shame that this focus is lost as things progress towards a denouement that feels both rushed and hollow.  The opening vibe of scuzzy Dick-ian noir rendered through some clean, direct prose bodes well, but isn’t maintained, causing the loss of both belief in The Electric Church and interest.
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