Game developer and science fiction writer Chuck Wendig introduces us to the world of the Heartland and the Empyrean. The Heartland looks suspiciously like the rural Midwest, only its overgrown with a bizarre mutant form of corn that’s been spliced with, among other things, kudzu. Poisonous to eat, those living on the ground, that is, the Heartland, nonetheless have to tend as a fuel source for the Empyrean, a ruling class that lives on flotillas in the sky.
Cael McAvoy is a scavenger, making his living scarfing stray spare parts for Ace Notes, because dollars aren’t company dole, dontcha know. Cael and his friends are 17, which means they are to be Obligated to a chosen bride. Cael wants to be with Gwennie, his second mate on his land boat and his lover. It’s not to be, however, as she is Obligated to Boyland Barnes, Jr., the mayor’s son and Cael’s rival. No one is happy about the Obligation ceremony or the postponed Lottery, in which one lucky family will be plucked from the dirt and misery of the Heartland to live in the sky in the Empyrean.
So it is with Cael McAvoy’s world, and he, his family, and his crew search for a way to bring the system down.
In many ways, Under an Empyrean Sky and the world it spawns is the perfect mythos for the 2010’s. It’s an exaggeration of the current mentality where a chosen few keep the rest of humanity down. Dirt farms raising toxic crops instead of poorly paying jobs. The rich living in ships in the sky instead of simply skyscrapers. The whole game rigged so no one gets above their station. Whether you believe this is reality or not, Wendig has woven it into a Menckenesque dystopia.
The book is quickly written, and I do wish Wendig had taken more time to draw us into his new world. On the other hand, he is quite stingy on some of the details, which works to great effect. We never see life on the flotilla. We don’t really know much about why the corn exists. And we don’t know how this nightmare version of the world we once knew came about. By the end, Cael and Gwennie are thrown into hopeless situations that nonetheless promise to bite their oppressors in the ass when the time comes. So the hook is there. And Wendig is capable of reeling us in.