Book Review: Who Is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa?

Just over Christmas I was privileged to read an advanced copy of Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa?, fresh off the word processor of that wizard of homage, Andrez Bergen. Here are some first thoughts on the novel, which I highly recommend for anyone who entertains a certain class of fond childhood memories, and wants a cracking good read. 

With this novel, Andrez Bergen takes us once more into the world of his dystopian future Melbourne, Australia - the last city on Earth. Melbourne is not a nice place to be, a polluted, dangerous and divided place labouring under totalitarian rule, where citizens are just as likely to be ‘disappeared’ by the state as to succumb to some environmental hazard or crime. In contrast with Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat, which introduced the city, this time we visit fleetingly - most of our time in the novel will actually be spent hooked up to an IV drip and electrodes, with our consciousness lodged firmly in a virtual world called Heropa. 

The contrast between Heropa and Melbourne forms a vivid counterpoint in the novel. Where Melbourne is decaying, filthy and dying, perpetually steaming under an acid rain, the towers of Heropa positively gleam under cloudless skies. Think of a comic-book Manhattan of the 1930’s, with elements of the 40’s, 50’s and occasionally the 60’s woven in for good measure and all ramped up Gotham-city-wise. City newsrooms bustle and buzz, the pavements are awash with swarming crowds of busy inhabitants, everyone wears hats, the women wear gloves and fitted dresses, all manner of fabulous vintage vehicles and trams ply the roads and heroes and villains do daily battle among the towers to gain the upper hand.

Heropa is a city filled with two classes of being: the Capes, who are heroes or villains - real people hooked in via remote link - and blandos, or phonies - apparently sentient humans who form the vast majority of the world’s population. These are artificial people with a small ‘p’ tattooed between their shoulder blades, and who go about their daily business as alternatively beneficiaries or victims of the struggle between the Capes.

The Capes are the main event in the city, and their battles and stoushes frequently extinguish numerous blando lives and destroy much property, only to have everything snap back into place at the midnight ‘reset’, ready for another day. The battles between the Capes are something of a ritualised affair; not so much in earnest as in a grand tradition of move and counter-move, the comic-book-like destruction staying within some predefined limits. That’s the theory, at any rate.

 The Cape Southern Cross, by Giovanni Balatti

The Cape Southern Cross, by Giovanni Balatti

But something has gone wrong in Heropa. The reset has stopped working, and injury and damage are becoming permanent. For the first time, Capes are being killed - violently obliterated in Heropa, and left as brain-dead husks in Melbourne. The novel follows 15 year old protagonist and comic-book afficionado Jack, known in Heropa as the hero Southern Cross, as he weaves his way through the city, attempting with his fellow heroes (the Equalizers) to determine who is killing the great Capes of Heropa - while trying to avoid being killed themselves.

Bergen does homage really well, with frequent twists and a deft touch, and his works positively hum with his child-like love and delight in comics, sci-fi and noir. The settings, vehicles, props and aesthetics of both Heropa and Melbourne create vivid new worlds for the reader, worlds that positively beg to be explored. I felt that we have only scratched the surface of these places, and I for one hope that Bergen is not done with them yet.

The aesthetics of setting, props and costumes are compelling, lush and rich, but they would only form an empty stage set without an equally compelling study of character driving an investigative narrative. In this way, I think Bergen’s real party trick, evident in all three of his novels to date, is to craft enduring and well-rounded, believable characters who come to matter to the reader. He always seems to avoid the danger of shallow caricature that one might be tempted to suspect accompanies the genres he mines so effectively. Bergen’s characters have a ring of truth about them, and what happens to them seems to have real consequence to the reader.

In this case, we get to know the young Jack from before he enters Heropa; we first spend time with him in Melbourne, a poignant and solitary existence, his family imprisoned by the state - where he wrings as much joy out of a cache of comic books as he can. We go with him as he is introduced into an adult world - albeit a strange, virtual world, where he wears a skin-tight costume and mask on his muscled virtual adult body. We follow Jack as he then finds companionship in an unexpected quarter, in such contrast to his solitary and neglected life in Melbourne - and we also get to know his fellow Equalizers as they emerge in the narrative as characters with hearts and minds, despite their flamboyant comic-book appearance. 

Without spoiling any of the fun, one of Bergen’s most compelling ideas is elaborated through a sideways exploration of the nature of artificial intelligence. Can we fall in love with someone who is not real? What does it mean to be ‘real’ anyway? Bergen brings something new to these staple questions of science fiction, making us care about characters even as we know them to be ‘fake’. The questions raised by this exploration remain tantalisingly unanswered, but there is much fertile ground to explore in future works.

I liked Heropa, I liked Jack and I liked his companions. I enjoyed spending time with them, as much as I enjoyed spending time with the characters of Bergen’s previous novels. There is something about a Bergen novel that makes it impossible to put down - I read Heropa in two sittings. As I said earlier, I sincerely hope that Bergen is not finished with these fictional worlds - there is much still to be explored, and I look forward to the next instalment. 

Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? will be published some time in 2013. You can find my reviews of Andrez Bergen’s previous two novels, Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat and 100 Years of Vicissitude, by clicking on the links. Both are available at Amazon via the following links - TSMG and 100 Years.