AUTHOR: Steve Erickson
PUBLISHER: Blue Rider Press
RELEASE DATE: February 14, 2017
GENRE: Speculative Fiction
PAGE COUNT: 320
Knowing nothing about Steve Erickson as a prolific author, I was drawn to Shadowbahn by its eyebrow-raising premise: 20 years after their devastating fall, the Twin Towers suddenly reappear in the Badlands of South Dakota. Thousands migrate from every corner of the nation to see the phenomenon with their own eyes, and listen to the music the Towers emit. Like an aural Rorschach test, everyone hears a different tune. Meanwhile, on the ninety-something floor of the south tower, Jesse Presley, the stillborn twin of history’s most iconic singer, awakes to a reality in which he survived in his brother’s place.
AMERICAN STONEHENGE blares the cover of one newsweekly. To some who gather, the Towers represent a hallowing of the ground. To others, particularly those who lost someone in the Towers twenty years ago, they represent a desecration – page 16
Contentious content, huh? Bookended by a truck driver’s bumper sticker, reading SAVE AMERICAN FROM ITSELF, Shadowbahn asks “What if?” to lure us into a zigzagging analysis of American culture. With level of detail befitting a sci-fi, it is an engrossing socio-political speculation. Considering the wealth of discussion topics Shadowbahn offers, I only have room in this review to address the aspects that personally resonated with me. The themes that stood out to me explore identity, displacement, and personal mythology (e.g. what does it mean to be American?). Overarching this is music and the question of who owns it (e.g. songwriter or singer)?
It’s a century that disputes and hates the dearths of patterns, that disavows and loathes a vacuum of of digitalogic, as though Someone is putting on a cosmic demonstration of the limits of the rational – page 105
Plot, Point of View & Themes
Shadowbahn is told from multiple third person points of view, usually in single-page chapters. The P.o.V. wanders from character to character, reminiscent of a roadtrip with detours that don’t always have a clear intention besides taking the scenic route. During the slower middle chunk that tested my attention span, I sometimes missed indicators of whose P.o.V. I was reading, becoming temporarily disoriented.
The narrative voice held me at arm’s length emotionally, yet I was still engrossed in the ambling progression of the story. As a reader of mainly character-driven books, this was a different reading experience: I stayed conscious of how my interpretation and engagement with its ideas was constantly developing and changing. Even though this style doesn’t always resonate with me, the voice is handled with intention and skill.
Like all Americans, or like all Americans who are conscious of being American, Parker and Zema’s father always believed he was his country. But lately he’s come to realise that if he and his family didn’t emerge unscathed from their American crisis, American faith in the early part of the twenty-first century didn’t emerge at all. By the conclusion of the new century’s first score of years, only those who have a stake in an American idea defined by wealth and power can still speak of that idea so shamelessly, since wealth and power is the only American idea left – page 219
The plotline that interested me most follows Parker and Zema, a brother and sister driving from L.A. to Lake Michigan. 15-year-old Zema was adopted from an Ethiopian orphanage as a toddler by Parker’s middle-class white family. Underlying the normal sibling conflict between Parker and Zema is Shadowbahn’s elephant in the room: race. In this near future vision of America, the country is torn between conflicting factions: Union and Disunion. The tensions between Parker and Zema—family, yet estranged by race—encourage readers to think about the racial and cultural divides in their country, and how different communities coexist.
Zema also has a mysterious gift: following the extinction of music, songs flow through her body like a radio, attracting crazed hordes. As Shadowbahn’s only significant female character and person of colour representation, Zema’s role encourages us to reflect on cultural appropriation and stereotyping, and the “Othering” of “non-white” communities in Western culture. Her feeling of displacement and not belonging is the core of her character growth.
In the thirteen years since Zema came to America, she has never had any idea that having no idea who she is and having no idea where she belongs makes her more American than anyone – page 51
A separate narrative running parallel to Parker and Zema’s, Jesse Presley’s plotline revolves around identity. Continuing the motif of music, Jesse can’t outrun the shadow of Elvis Presley over his entire life. Despairing in his inability to outlive the shame of surviving in his brother’s place, Jesse is driven to madness. Besides turning history on its head, Jesse’s story contributes to the conversation around identity, authenticity, and belonging.
With its contentious subject matter and endless possible interpretations, Shadowbahn is the ultimate choice for book clubs. Readers with an extensive knowledge of music history will have an even deeper insight into this experimental book. Whether you are interested in its speculations on race, gender, politics, or culture, or simply find its exploration of American music fascinating, Steve Erickson provides fodder for discussion among all kinds of readers.