"An unpreserved Vesuvius, an overnight ruin" — that's how Sean Adams describes Los Verticalés, the fictional setting of his engrossing debut novel The Heap. Adams is not speaking figuratively. Los Verticalés, nicknamed The Vert, was once a leviathan 500-story building, erected in the American desert, that housed an entire metropolis' worth of apartments, residents and businesses. But years ago it suddenly collapsed, leaving a gargantuan pile of rubble and bodies called The Heap. That "overnight ruin" is now surrounded by a loose community of mobile homes called CamperTown, and the denizens of CamperTown dig through the debris, searching for the dead and whatever modest treasure might be salvaged.
One of these Dig Hands, as they're known, has a higher motivation: Orville Anders is the brother of Bernard Anders, a radio personality who is the last known survivor of The Vert's collapse. Bernard, however, is still trapped beneath the rubble, miraculously alive and broadcasting his daily radio talk show from somewhere in the bowels of The Vert's vast corpse. Bernard, living in darkness, subsists on rats and a trickle of water coming down a wall; Orville digs desperately every day in search of his buried-alive, increasingly unstable brother, keeping in touch by calling in to his radio show every day, hoping not only to find Bernard but to strengthen a fraternal bond that's grown frayed and distant over the years. It's a numbing, heartbreaking task, and it's made all the more difficult when Sundial Media — the owner of WVRT, the radio station that Bernard is still technically employed by — saddles Bernard with a moral dilemma: Would he be willing to brand and commercialize his exchanges with his brother as a kind of podcast-meets-reality-show?
Adams' imaginative scope is staggering. The intricately wrought details of The Vert serve as the substructure of The Heap, contained in interstitial chapters that sketch a blueprint of the fallen building as a monument to modern technology as well as a chilling social experiment. The Vert's inner core of apartments comprised the lower classes, since they were isolated from the outside of the building and therefore didn't have windows; in their place, UV screens broadcast moving images of the real world as a kind of analogy of Plato's cave wall. Reality began to warp inside The Vert as friction grew between The Windowed and The Windowless, to the point where the building's physical collapse is symbolic of its civic collapse.
No story about collapsed skyscrapers in the 21st century can avoid the ghost of Sept. 11. But Adams seems intent on steering clear of any kind of allegory in that regard. If anything, The Heap calls back to J.G. Ballard's 1975 novel High-Rise, although it's far lighter in its portrayal of how cloistered urban life can contort the arbitrary human conceits of time, space, morality and normality. As in High-Rise, The Heap picks apart hierarchies, but it does so with wit and metaphor rather than Ballard's trademark brutality. There's even a hint of China Miéville's The City and the City to The Heap's examination of how people can live shoulder to shoulder yet remain invisible to each other. But the emotional underpinning of Adams' story renders it far more relatable and warm.
The Heap is dizzying in scale, but at its heart it's an endearing and downright fun story about a man who defies all odds to reestablish a familial link that's been sundered by technology, catastrophe and commerce. There's even a pulpy conspiracy plot to propel the story along — and while it's not particularly complex or original, it perfectly counterbalances the elaborate world-building Adams has managed. Adams wields plenty of humor, too, of the black and absurdist variety, similar in tone to Jonathan Lethem's early speculative-fiction novels. The first great science fiction novel of 2020, The Heap is sharp, acidic and sweet — and as ambitiously constructed as The Vert itself.
Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the new book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. He's on Twitter: @jason_m_heller.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.