Richard Kadrey is the pioneering cyberpunk writer best known for his blockbuster supernatural horror series “Sandman Slim”; but as anyone who follows his work knows, he has more than two arrows in his quiver. His latest is “The Grand Dark,” a noir, diesel punk book set in a Weimar world of war trauma, debauchery, cabaret and looming disaster — and it’s superb.
Largo is a bike courier in the city of Lower Proszawa — once the down-at-heels ghetto to High Proszawa’s stately mansions but now all that remains of Proszawa, practically speaking, ever since the great war reduced High Proszawa to a deadly snarl of plague pits, bomb craters, unexploded ordnance and ruins. The great war is over now, and Lower Proszawa has been reborn, with new fancy neighborhoods springing up alongside the ruins of buildings that were shelled or merely left to rot during the long fight.
With the war over, Largo and his fellow Lower Proszawans have found a new, frenetic energy. Every day is a haze of morphia drops dripped under the tongue; every night is a cocaine-fueled debauch as Largo reels from the Grand Dark theater (where his beautiful girlfriend, Remy, is an actor, directing a mechanical puppet onstage to dramatize sensationalized versions of the most horrible murders published in yellow sheets like “Ihre Skandal”) to parties where radical artists and war profiteers rub shoulders and fall into piles of writhing bodies.
But the war never really ended. It never does. Everyone with eyes to see knows that there’s a new war coming, and that only gives the revels more urgency. The maras — mechanical automata that were developed to fight in the war but now are put to peacetime use as taxi drivers, servants and darker, more frightening purposes — are everywhere, and with them, the chimeras, genetically engineered monstrosities that emerged from military contractors’ laboratories and now are snarling, exotic pets. The nachtvogel, a legendary and rarely seen secret police force, are still on the prowl, and even if you don’t know anyone who’s been taken by them, you certainly know better than to ask after someone who has.
‘The Grand Dark’ is a miracle of the old and the new: a tale of Weimar decadence that is also a parable for our New Gilded Age.
Largo doesn’t care. He goes to enormous lengths not to care. He’s been afraid for too long, and now that he’s been promoted to head courier (his predecessor was taken by the nachtvogel), he sees his chance to make a better life for himself, a life that will give Remy all the things she’s used to getting from her wealthy admirers. Even with the Drops — a deadly plague thought to have escaped from the war’s biological laboratories — sweeping the city; even with the Iron Dandies — masked veterans, disfigured and traumatized by the war — everywhere in Proszawa, Largo wants only to ride his bicycle, deliver his parcels, dribble morphia under his tongue, watch Remy perform at the Grand Dark and think about anything except for impending war.
But even if Largo is not interested in the war, the war takes an interest in Largo. He can’t escape it.
If you read “Sandman Slim,” you know that Kadrey can do hard-boiled like nobody’s business, like a Tom Waits ballad in novel form. And you know that he can do plot like hell, a fast-burning, violent and relentless storytelling mode that propels his gentleman loser antiheroes along with great energy, in the face of adversity, beatings and impossible odds.
“The Grand Dark” is a miracle of the old and the new: a tale of Weimar decadence that is also a parable for our New Gilded Age, where war is inequality’s handmaiden, an incinerator that neatly removes the unnecessariat and fattens the purses of their social betters. It’s a fun and terrifying ride, gritty and relentless, burning with true love and revolutionary fervor.
Harper Voyager; 432 pp., $26.99
Doctorow is a science fiction novelist and activist; his latest book is “Radicalized.”