When Steve Erickson’s bizarre alternate future novel Shadowbahn was first published last year, it caused something of a stir in the world of fantasy fiction. So potent is the image of the Twin Towers in US culture, that it’s a bold author who builds their sci-fi novel around the idea of those two skyscrapers reappearing in the Dakota Badlands in 2021, undamaged and occupied by the shadows of long-dead American icons.
It’s far from being the only absurd and outlandish creative decision that Erickson makes, in putting together a story that is bursting with allegory and metaphor but which has little interest in the norms of sequential narrative. In fact, the novel seeks to use its many parallel, fractured storylines as a means to explore different aspects of American history and culture and ponder on what might lie at the core of the country’s zeitgeist.
Two forces drive forward this “what if” foray into the bloodstream of the United States: movement and music. A young Californian man by the name of Parker and his Ethiopian adopted sister Zema squabble about the songs they should listen to on their road-trip east out of LA, as they only have their father’s old mix tapes to choose from.
Others are drawn into an appreciation of their musical selections, as sound recordings held on discs and drives held elsewhere are wiped by some unseen force. Their revived playlist empowers them to crossover to another reality and make the transition to a supernatural highway known only as the Shadowbahn.
On the ninety-third floor of the Twin Towers, Elvis Presley’s stillborn twin, Jesse Garon Presley, wanders the corridors, listening to the voice of his long-dead brother, and feeling pained by his lack of comparable singing ability, while a humbled JFK lurks unseen in the shadows. Each individual in the crowd drawn to the spectacle of the building’s arrival hears different songs playing inside their head, as they stand in awe of the edifice.
That frankly ridiculous (and very selective) plot summary should give a flavour of just how “left-field” a novel Shadowbahn is, and hint at how challenging it might be to present its meandering, overlapping, digressing flights of fantasy through another storytelling medium.
The producers of this new BBC Radio 4 adaptation, part of the 2018 Dangerous Visions series of dramas, quite rightly do not attempt to cram the whole experience of the book into their sixty-minute drama slot. Instead, they make a valiant effort to distil the book’s atmosphere and aesthetic and give a sense of the novel’s intent.
While production values are as good as you’d expect, with sound design especially evocative, the task of reflecting Erickson’s epic ambitions in such a time-constrained format is nigh on impossible. That said, this audio experience will doubtless intrigue many listeners to seek out the blend of provocative alt-history, anti-nostalgia and edgy futurology in the original book.
SHADOWBAHN / BBC RADIO 4 / AUTHOR: STEVE ERICKSON / ADAPTOR: ANITA SULLIVAN / DIRECTOR: JUDITH KAMPFNE / CAST: MIKE IVESON, ANTU YACOB, ROBBIE TANN, PATCH DARRAGH, TASHA LAWRENCE / FIRST BROADCAST: 9 JUNE 2018 / AVAILABLE ON: BBC IPLAYER