RogerBW's Blog

Firebreak, Nicole Kornher-Stace 28 January 2022

2021 SF. Mallory and Jessa are orphans of the corporate wars, streaming their VR gameplay in the hope of getting more water credits. But the real prize in the game is finding the SecOps NPCs, automated avatars of real-world corporate supersoldiers…

And this is a really odd, and rather good, book. One of the stream's new tippers thinks that's something weird about the SecOps, that they weren't bioengineered from scratch the way the company says, and asks Mallory and Jessa to gather some more data. "If I suddenly disappear, at least we'll know I was right." Well, guess who's suddenly disappearing? And things go further out of control from there…

There's some solid material here about the effectiveness and limits of soft power in the face of an enemy that owns the communication channels you're using; how do you set things up so that your going quiet will cause even more trouble than your keeping broadcasting? What do you do when people just don't care?

This is also how to make one of those casually nasty dystopias that makes sense. In something like The Hunger Games or Red Rising, there's an obvious enemy, the people with power who casually use it to keep everyone else down; so when you want to start a revolution, everyone already knows who the target is. Here there are two corporations, and just as soon as Stellaxis manages to beat Greenleaf, there'll be plenty of water for everyone and no more power curfews, but until then oh dear a Greenleaf bomb destroyed your building, let's all sacrifice together, just a little bit longer.

But also there are people, particularly Mal and the SecOp known to the world as 22 – because of course they're just as much corporate pawns as everyone else – and the relationships between those people, and I'm increasingly believing that these things make the axis on which a story (as opposed to a technical paper) turns. (Also, where a lesser author would throw in a sex scene between these two people who turn out to care about each other very deeply, Kornher-Stace doesn't – and considering the differences in worldview and background between the principles, it would have felt deeply dodgy if she had.)

This book is loosely linked with the Archivist Wasp series, in that it's set in the world that came before that apocalypse, but the connections are interesting to make rather than essential to understanding the plot. One thing will be a bit less of a surprise if you've read Latchkey, but not much less.

I loved Archivist Wasp and liked Latchkey. But this book was aimed squarely at who I am today, by someone who gets how capitalism works, and it's an early contender for book of the year. (And I notice it's eligible for the Hugo. If I were nominating, I'd definitely nominate it.)

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