Reflections on “Empire City”

“Empire City” by Matt Gallagher.

This is not a book a review, except that I am writing it after I read the book, and am ruminating on the messages there in. I do not write this to judge writing.

I do give a lot of spoilers.

I’ve been reading Matt’s work since he blogged from Iraq back in the Aughts. Unlike many of the milbloggers, Matt was an officer, a Lieutenant. Since my own abbreviated Army career ended with me leaving the Army as a Lietenant a decade earlier, I kind of find my self in this perpetual Lieutenant-mentality when I think about the Army.

The differences are worth noting: I was a Tabless bastard in the Infantry. Matt was a Cav scout, where a Ranger Tab was not a requirement for acceptance.
I patrolled in Haiti for 80 days. That was my only “Real World” mission. I was not afraid of being shot at. Matt’s overseas experiences were a little more kinetic.
I got out of the Army and became a software engineer. I spent my free time rockclimbing.
Matt got out of the Army to become a writer. Not sure how he spends his free time.
I have a tech blog that I use as a programmers notebook. I am the only person that reads it regularly

Matt wrote a weblog that was read by many people. It was taken down by his chain of command (abbreviated form of the story)

Matt writes book. I have never written a book.

Matt’s first book is called “Kaboom.” I took my time in getting around to read it; I needed some space from all things Army for a while. I finally grabbed it a couple months back. The first half was a review of his blog, rereshing, but I had read it before. The second half as all new to me. Another parallel; the unit Matt served with on the remainder of his tour was on of the ones I served with in Hawaii. Nec Aspera Terrent.

When I heard he wrote a fiction book, I was intrigued. I have to admit that, as a recovering fantasy/sci-fi bookworm, I have actually shied away from fiction lately, and I don’t find violence to be escapism anymore. I wanted more of his realism, but, hey, he gets to write what he writes. There was to be no sequel to Kaboom, which makes sense as he left the theater.

I was wrong. Empire City is in every way a sequel to Kaboom.

In an alternative history, America “Won” the Vietnam war. I suspect this more than anything leads to the parallels with “The Watchmen.” Well, that and the superheros.

In Kaboom, Matt talks about an operation along side the Rangers, and his impression of them. The superhero’s in Empire are Rangers…except for the two that are not. One is a pilot, and one is the Author’s avatar.

Sebastian Rios. Was the last name a nod to Rico, The main character from “Star Ship Troopers” by Heinlein? Even if it is subconscious, we all read and absorbed that book. San Sebastian…a non-white boy when he wants to be, able to hide in plain sight, whether visible or not. But can use his name to reject the white supremacists. The coming of age story of a young neoliberal becoming a conservative warfighter? The drinking, the shades, the story told primarily from his perspective? A Catholic, not WASP, background?

Haiti. The word Haitian is one of the most pleasing-to-rhyme words I’ve come across. My own blog post used the term we called our deployment “The Haitian Vacation.” In His blog, Matt used the Haitian Sensation as as the code name for one of his soldiers. We see the influence of the Sensation on “Dash.” Dash is, of course, a bad name for a superhero with superspeed as that was the name used in “The Incredibles” but we can assume that to be an homage, too; maybe that movie didn’t exist in this alternate timeline.

The Chaplain. What a wonderful twist, to make him a non-noncombatant. The uniform, with the magical aurora a Colonel-Chaplain would carry, would be a wonderful hide-in-plain sight disguise, just like the homeless disguise he used on an everyday street. He shoots, he scores, he dies.

Is Mia an amalgam of some pilot friends? Is she City Girl? That was Matt’s code name for his Girlfriend/fiancee from the Kaboom book, who is now his wife. They have been together over a decade now; write what you know. Matt’s got a couple kids (as do I!) and there is no closer a man can get to a pregnant woman than living through the process at her side. The prosthetic as a banal reality of life, not stopping her from running 10 miles, is a nod to how we’ve changed.

Would we even have Tupac without the changes that happened in the 80s? Would he really have lived to the present day?

What the fuck happened to all the “good guys” (and girsl) at the end? I half expected that General Jackie Collins (A nod to the writer? Of course yes, and of course no) would prove to be the “Chessmaster” of the whole thing, organizaing both the Superhero project and the assassination of the Governor, leading to her own presidency. That Gallagher does not come right out and tell us this is actually a wonderful bit of story telling. Instead of a Hollywood ending, we get “Brazil.” All of the people that could have figured out what is going on get subsumed by this alternate history…because that is the rule in that world. Dash does not become a member of the outlaw group, he kills the leader of it. Mia stays in the campaign, even after she realizes that there are assassins associated with it. Sebastian “Volunteer”s. Flowers continues to get laid. Justice dies. In both the modern and the literal meaning of Literally.

Is this Parody? Is this world a Dystopia? If so, is it any worse than the real world we are living in right now? Is this the way history “should have” gone according to the many right wing friends Matt and I both have from our time in the Army? Is Matt actually a right wing nut job hiding behind a liberal veneer to survive in modern day Manhattan? OK, I kinda doubt this last one.

Maybe this is all a setup for a series. Over time, our heros see the wool has been pulled over their eyes and they fight the establishment and we get pulled out of the dystopia. I kinda hope not. I like this as a stand alone story; it is an amorality play. Reductio ad absurdum.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote “The Fall of Gondolin” when he was recovering in the Hospital after his wartime experiences in WWI. As such, it reflects a merging of his lifelong fascination with tales of the Fae and his horrific experiences with modern warfare. It was not analogy, it was therapy. I think the same is true of Empire City. It would not have been written if Matt had not gone to Iraq, and it reflects his experiences over there layered on top of the American culture he absorbed as a kid.

There is more, but I don’t need to write down every last detail of the book, this is long enough as it is.

I’d like to end with my favorite quotes from the book.

She took off her shoes for security and set her jawline to “Stoic.”


Jesus, Mary and Allah

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