Book Review: Assault on Sunrise
by Michael Shea
“Everything that rises must converge,” said Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin. But he was talking about humanity and Christ–not pizza and bagels, not Star Wars and Shakespeare, and definitely not Assault on Sunrise, the new novel by Michael Shea, which marries reality programming to B-movie horror.
Marries via sawed-off shotgun, of course. It starts with bucolic splendor in the town of Sunrise (population 600), nestled in the Trinity Mountains of northern California. Curtis and Jool share a cabin just off main street, have a baby on the way, and open Shea’s tale by welcoming a stray dog into their family. “He was lucky to find us,” says Jool. “Let’s call him Chance.”
This is their idyllic life as retired film extras. They worked for Panoply Studios, run by Val Margolian, and they survived the deadly filming of Alien Hunger, in which monstrous “special effects” maimed and murdered scores of people for entertainment’s sake (see Shea’s 2010 novel The Extra). Curtis, Jool, and their fellow Sunrisers have earned a peace that’s deliciously inviting:
Up in the Trinity Mountains, the stars–even when the quarter moon was up–were no feeble thing. The universe was right there on top of you, a pavement of white coals. Their light lay like frost on the grassy slopes and on the grandfather pines in their thousands.
But this elegantly-strummed intro, quite like a Metallica epic, soon grows sinister, promising raucous riffs ahead. Shea also uses many stock characters–including bikers, teen punks, and teachers–to amplify the midnight-movie atmosphere. Here’s Gillian, his contemplative Native American:
[She] had quested in three different mountain ranges through the years of her adolescence. She knew how to fast and find that ghostly unity with the wilderness where hunger and physical extremity made your senses pour out of you like radiation, where all life’s personalities–clawed, fanged, feathered, scaled, and furred–sooner or later showed themselves. Where they met your eyes and let you look into theirs.
Can the people of Sunrise, however, be ready for synthetic dogs, walking among them and feeding data to Val Margolian? That’s right–the studio head holds a grudge, and uses his vast resources to punish the former extras. First he sends Panoply-owned cops into Sunrise to falsely arrest, and then force a shootout with, some especially volatile citizens. When the city-slick badges get killed, Margolian then has the entire town accused and legally tried for murder.
This is Shea casting his eyes not-too-far forward, into a future where American corporations have warped the law to not only segregate whole classes of people, but wipe them from existence. “Evil doesn’t need to be brought anywhere,” cautions a senior Sunriser from her wheelchair. “It comes calling on its own.”
Sunrise is determined to fight back when Margolian and his army come to perform (and film) the execution. Former Panoply mercenary Sandy Devlin orchestrates the secret theft of some anti-gravity gunships; Curtis helps uncover a deadly trap waiting in the town’s Cinnabar mines. The shadowy maneuvers of Margolian’s second-in-command, Mark Millar, are a black melody all their own.
Assault on Sunrise, certainly according to its retro cover, may be a genre trip. Paragraph-for-paragraph, though, Shea writes Jupiter-sized circles around beastly kinfolk like David Wellington and Charlie Huston. Here’s a bit from his tumescent finale, when giant insects hatch from a field of corpses:
Barbed bug legs erupted like a forest of thorn trees, tearing a passage for huge fanged heads. Sprays of cold blood and torn flesh celebrated their birth like flung confetti. Shreds of tissue bearding the thorns, those crooked trees clawed at the sky, seemed to find purchase on the air that hauled them into view. Long bodies–limber shafts–thrust up and wide green wings scissored open, became bright, buzzing blurs in the sunlight that lifted–more powerfully now– long abdomens, long, trailing legs toward the sky.
Such prose is straight from the furnace of literary fantasy’s last bash (thirty plus years ago), when Timescape paperbacks ruled bookshelves. Shea’s new novel, the searing hot coal that it is, cooks with the best of them.