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Firebreak, by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Once upon a time in the Before-Times, I traveled to New York City. (Pause to stare off into space and consider how distant this now feels.) And while I was there, I went to a reading that featured Nicole Kornher-Stace reading a section of Firebreak, and I got really excited, because it was really good. I was recovering from a bad bout of influenza and did not have the energy to stick around after and enthuse about the book. But! I received it in eARC form and have that opportunity now!

I’m really glad that I heard the late section of the book early, because the beginning of the book is the characters’ work in computer games, and I am a hard sell on computer game books. One of the reasons, though, is that a lot of books that feature computer games struggle with how to make them important and resort to silly melodramatic tropes like “if you die in the GAME you die in REAL LIFE.” Kornher-Stace, on the other hand, understands that games are important because they are an art form humans invest with importance, and Firebreak reflects that on every level.

(“If you die in the opera you die in real life,” come on, nobody feels the need to do this. Ahem. Anyway.)

The other half of this book, besides involvement with online gaming, is water scarcity, and it is vivid and dystopic for sure. As a very water-focused person I found this just horrifying and needed to have a glass of water by my side the entire time I was reading this book, because oh wow, yikes, Kornher-Stace makes you really feel every detail of this system.

I feel like Firebreak deals with tropes and themes that cyberpunk wanted to handle, but in a way that’s taken the last 30-40 years of human politics and culture into account. Corporate behemoths focused on their own profit to the exclusion of human well-being? Check. Online life providing both respite and sinister problems? Check. But unlike most cyberpunk, Firebreak is well grounded in environmental change and in the desperation that can come from humans being ground down in a system that pits them against each other for the barest necessities. Firebreak is not anybody’s-movement-punk. It’s just plain punk. And I for one am here for it.

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