Science fiction, particularly dystopia, has a long tradition of channeling zeitgeist while expressing a fearful admiration for technology. Nicole Kornher-Stace’s novel Firebreak harnesses skepticism of big-box corporations while also scrutinizing influencer culture and its devotees. Amateur video game live streamer Mallory goes professional when a mysterious benefactor hires her to document a team of superpowered mercenaries as much as she can. Mallory’s new employer theorizes that Stellaxis Innovations, which provides everything from the game Mallory plays to the food she eats, has manufactured its operatives by brainwashing children. When her patron disappears, Mallory sets off an investigation to expose the dirty secrets of a military-industrial corporation.
While she leaves actual combat to the supersoldiers, Mallory’s investigation finds her carrying out video game scenarios from escort missions to boss battles with mad scientists. The plot plays out along predictable dystopian lines but involves plenty of urban firefights, jaw-dropping mecha, and a dramatic worker protest. But then again, aren’t video games fairly predictable in the plot? Rare is the game where they don’t want you to advance to the next level. The same sort of innovation comes to the fore here, as Mallory finds herself applying virtual skills to real life. It’s my seventh-grade self’s dream, except that, of course, it’s a nightmare.
First, there’s the on-ground damage caused by city-destroying weapons. Mallory’s experience being a hero involves a lot of mangled bodies and sick people. At times, she finds she cannot even trust the food or water she eats since it’s provided by one or other evil corporations. When the corporation that owns everything cannot be trusted, Mallory finds herself without basic necessities. Second, more traumatically, Mallory’s relationships are collateral damage to her heroism. From the employers who disappear to roommates who also find themselves without food, Mallory can neither trust her suppliers nor gauge the impact of her actions.
Perhaps most frustratingly, Mallory can find scant sympathy among the supersoldiers who wish to destroy the companies from within. They work with her and show her respect, but there’s never any real camaraderie. Despite her jaded outlook, Mallory retains a healthy dose of hero-worship. Discovering the ways the corporations have hurt their own supersoldiers further destroys Mallory’s image of them. While this breaking point nudges Mallory from streamer to full-on rebel, it’s a bitter pill to acknowledge that even the real world is full of fiction. Overall, the graphic descriptions of violence and profanity may not be suitable for juvenile audiences, but Firebreak will be a relaxing read for longtime science fiction fans and an even better gateway book for readers more used to watching movies all winter long.
Four out of five stars.
Page count: 415