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The Empty Ones
by Robert Brockway
Tor, $24.99, 288pp
Published: March 2016

Just over a year ago, I devoured Robert Brockway's 'The Unnoticeables' (click here for review) in a single session and wondered about what I got out of it. In my review, I described it as 'an enjoyable read but an ultimately unfulfilling one' and decided that I'd recommend it 'more as a drama to people with a history in the punk scene than as a quirky sci-fi yarn.' I also suggested that I would 'happily pick up another of his books but part of that would be to see if it ends up somewhere more substantial than this one.'

Well, I did just that because here's my review of the sequel, 'The Empty Ones', which does everything its predecessor did but just a little bit more. Brockway plays to tradition at least that much.

One thing that leapt out at me this time is that this is being marketed as a horror novel. I'm surprised at being surprised at that, given that it features a set of heroes being threatened by armies of monsters, but I understood 'The Unnoticeables' to be a science fiction tale that worked best as a comedy or memoir and I have to say that the same applies here.

I never felt any sense of horror at the creatures that our heroes battle or what they do, just puzzlement as to what they are and what they represent, which is a thoroughly science fiction concept for sure, the idea that human beings, like anything else in the universe, are mathematical in nature and thus can be solved down to more concise versions of themselves, a process that doesn't go well for our humanity. It also has to be said that by far the best thing about either book is Brockway's prose, which is darkly wry and tortuously funny.

'The Unnoticeables' alternated between two battles: that of Carey, a New York punk in 1977, and that of Kaitlyn, a stuntwoman working as a waitress in 2013 Hollywood. They remain completely unconnected for half the book, until Carey, grown much older, shows up in Kaitlyn's story as a homeless alcoholic. In this sequel, we follow the same approach, with a little variation here and there.

Chapter one tells us that our story is going to be how Meryll, in Peru in 1984, became God, but that angle is almost forgotten as we find our way to London with Carey and Randall in 1977 to experience the next generation of punk, even if they go to see the Ramones rather than the Clash. This story thread directly follows on from their strand of the first book, continuing their battle with the Unnoticeables and Empty Ones but alongside Brits who have experienced what they've experienced and just have different words for what they fight. The Unnoticeables are Faceless to the British punks, tar men are the Sludge and the Empty Ones are Husks. Oh, and the angels, the big bad guys behind the rest, are Flares, an odd choice of term given that Brits in 1977 would think of flares as flared trousers but hey…

It's still 2013 for Kaitlyn, but she's now in Tucson on her way into Mexico with Carey and Jackie. Her bit of the first book was overwhelmed by Carey's, until he showed up in hers too. In the sequel, she's still a lot less prominent than he is, so it's hard to pay attention to her story, as important as she is. The weird thing is that it's not just because she spends so much of this one unconscious, it's that she's just a character in this story, having no purpose beyond her defined role, whereas Carey is our avatar through a variety of important cultural events, whether it's punk in New York or roller skating in LA. It's easy to see that Carey is Brockway's voice poured out onto the page, whereas Kaitlyn just fleshes out the story.

That's not to say that he can't write female characters. We may not be as obsessed with Meryll as Carey, but we're still interested in who she is and what she's doing. Kaitlyn's friend Jackie finds out much about herself in this book too, even if it's that she doesn't want to be in it. Brockway must realise how blah he wrote Kaitlyn, so he throws in some Meryll chapters for good measure and lets Jackie take over others when Kaitlyn is incapacitated. That's much appreciated, even if it adds to an already complex narrative structure that isn't helped by Carey being everywhere this time out and we alternate between him being young and old more than we alternate between his story and Kaitlyn's or London and Mexico.

Overall, this plays out much as 'The Unnoticeables' did. I read it quickly, enjoyed it immensely and felt like picking up the next book in the as yet unnamed series immediately. However, after turning the last page, I wondered if there was any substance in what I'd read. I appear to have the same problem with Robert Brockway novels as I do with Kevin Smith films. They're easily consumed but it's the voice that warrants attention rather than the product that they hawk.

Let me put it this way: I find Smith's monologues on 'Star Wars' mildly amusing, but know full well that he can generate that stuff on the spot and, while I would truly value that in a conversation, I want more from multi-million dollar movies. Similarly, I see Brockway's commentary on society, even in an aside or a throwaway comment, as hilarious and insightful all at once. I think I could read his prose on the back of a cereal box and still get a kick out of it, but I want more from a novel.

It looks like the series will continue, with the next volume apparently called 'Kill All Angels' at this point, but I'm increasingly wondering why. After two books, I find that I don't care about the underlying story; its monsters, whatever names they go by; or even its characters, whether they are heroes or protagonists, who fight them. What's more, I'm not convinced that Brockway cares about it either. Sure, he goes through the motions and periodically nudges what passes for that story along, enhancing the mythology a little more each time, but it feels like an afterthought every time he does it. In fact, even as he does it, he isn't invested in what's happening but how it's happening to Carey.

I believe that Brockway cares about Carey, either because he is Carey or just wants to be. Carey's life is a relatively simple one, revolving around beer, sex and music. Everything else exists either to help him get to more of the above or get in his way while he tries. He's a refreshingly honest character and that helps him work so well, whatever the background happens to be to a particular scene. He's universal. Put him in Munich in 1933 and he'd punch out Hitler, not because of any political motivation but because he just had his eye on some buxom Oktoberfest waitress and der future Führer got in the way.

So let's have the punk memoir or the Carey novel that doesn't have any of the sci-fi or horror underpinnings. I think that would be more true to what Robert Brockway wants to write and I think it would be more true to where I want to read his hilarious prose. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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