For some silly reason, I decided that this year was going to be the year of cyberpunk for me. And continuing in that vein, I figured I would pick up a newer book that almost lured me in several times before I realized my TBR was just too heavy. However, I was on a bookstore date with my girlfriend and decided I would treat myself to Nicole Kornher-Stace’s 2021 novel Firebreak. It has a bunch of the usual surface level aspects of a cyberpunk book including virtual reality, resource shortages, and corporations run amok. But it also has some more modern action sensibilities that make the story a fun breezy read despite the myriad of terrible things that occur within it.
Mallory lives under the auspices of the Stellaxis Innovations corporation. Her life is precarious and she, like her roommates and many other “citizens” of the corporation, can barely get by. Water is rationed to a quarter gallon a day. War is constantly on the horizon as the region formerly known as the United States of America is controlled by two corporations, Stellaxis and Greenleaf. The only real way to find respite from the near constant barrage of atrocities is to participate in SecOps, a war game by Stellaxis that Mallory streams on, hoping to gain donations to live through another day. However, while grinding out another chance to reach the scoreboards, Mallory encounters one of the game’s rare and mysterious supersoldiers, 28. After the rare meeting her numbers start to go up, and she’s handed an outside job by an equally mysterious woman who wants more information on the supersoldiers. Unfortunately for Mallory, it gives her an itch she can’t help but scratch, but may bring a lot more trouble than she’s expecting.
Firebreak has all of the usual suspects when you think of glossy cyberpunk, and fits it all into a neat standalone, action oriented package driven by a mystery. Kornher-Stace drops you right into Mallory’s life as a streamer, grinding her way through the ranks just to get a little attention on the web. Through her chance encounter, she gets more than she bargained for, and Kornher-Stace does a great job of making this feel like a big deal. Her friend, along with the circumstances, pushes her out of her comfort zone, forcing her to rely on her not so great people skills when all she wants to do is steadily climb the ladder. Not to mention, she isn’t a detective and her rising fame could become more of a hindrance than a help when she’s asked to dig deeper into the origins of the celebrity super soldiers. There is a recognizable dread of having stepped into a pool that is much deeper than one expects, but at least their water rations are being taken care of by their mysterious benefactor.
The plot moves fairly quickly leaving Mallory little time to really think through what she’s doing. She has to move quickly, reacting and making decisions faster than she’s comfortable with. Her hotel roommates start to question her intentions while her best friend pushes her further into the mystery. When she tries to find out something more on her own from the original source, she ends up in an urban warzone without any skills she would have in her video game. The author manages to portray the horror of being a civilian when armored mechs are destroying a city, highlighting Mallory’s complete lack of actual combat skill. She manages to keep her head cool as she tries to find safety for her and the strangers around her, but only seems to make it through due to a run in with a pair of living supersoldiers.
The world of Firebreak is not kind, and Kornher-Stace fills it with the worst fears of corporate overreach. Everyone is only allotted a quarter gallon of water a day, and the nearest delivery station can be shut down at a moment’s notice. Scheduled blackouts are common even though most people rely on power to make their living. Everything is monetized and advertised on a consistent basis. Anything can be subsumed into the corporate machine without a moment’s hesitation, including a riot. It feels like microtransactions from video games came to everyday life, and one is eternally stuck in Time’s Square NYC. It’s not deep in the pondering sense, but it’s a realistic onslaught that would definitely be exhausting. Considering the hustle that folks have to go through in the streaming and online entertainment these days (not to mention gig work), I’d say Koprnher-Stace nailed the feelings of precarity despite doing things the way “you’re supposed to.”
I wouldn’t say I fell in love with Firebreak, but I had a good time. It was an entertaining and solid ride that tries to peel back the lengths which corporations at war would go to in order to keep their populace subdued. The characters are fleshed out enough, and I didn’t feel any sense of frustration over any decisions. If you’re looking for a fun, but still dark adventure into a more modern cyberpunk world, Firebreak is for you.
Rating: Firebreak 7.0/10