Saturday, May 29, 2021

Review of Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Everybody who reads fiction as a lifestyle comes to it for their own reasons. Plural, each reader has different appetites requiring feeding. Thus, offering the menu of Nicole Kornher-Stace's 2021 novel Firebreak is easy: are you looking for your favorite Japanese anime mmo with a layer of dystopia? Try it. The only thing missing are the pictures.

Mallory is a streamer—a mediocre streamer. Languishing amid the masses, she and her partner Jess go online to blast their way through an mmo video game called BestLife that combines elements of Pokemon, Mechwarrior, and Fortnite. They scrape by on scant donations—donations of money you assume, but no: water. In the world of Firebreak, corporations have taken full control of the US, and now fight over the pieces. The opposite of 'corporate social responsibility', they ration water while forcing the wars' survivors to live like sardines and get rich off selling their game's merchandise. When Mall and Jess get an offer from a rich sponsor that's too good to be true, they decide to respond. And into the maelstrom of corporate corruption they they inadvertently thrown themselves...

The setting of Firebreak is less than convincing (more later), but where it makes a clear place for itself is the virtual setting. Not only does the game BestLife feel real, the culture Mallory is a part of surrounding the game likewise feels lived. The subscription/donation model based on success and/or interesting content is a reflection of our Twitch/Youtube world today, and the game itself likely already exists given how many mmos are on the market. The book nails this.

Another place where the novel succeeds is pace complementing style. Like real world video games, there is extremely little downtime between the action, most of which is organic to the plot. Focused, there are no spurious digressions for a spot of action just to keep momentum. And yet another success is the banter between Mallory and Jess. I normally dislike such trendy dialogue, but Kornher-Stace does it in both familiar yet intelligent/minimalist fashion.

My biggest issue with Firebreak is the lengths to which the reader must stretch their disbelief when encountering the logic of the setting. I've seen it described as 'hyper-capitalism”, but “hyper-unrealistic” might be better. The fact that the multitudes live day to day with either a minimum or no water at all and yet maintain a semblance of normal life without social revolution is unbelievable. Water is the most basic element of life. Take away my Levis, I'll survive. Take away my whole grain muesli, I'll get by. Take away most everything besides the basics of food, shelter, etc., and the ability to sustain those items and I'll make it work. But take away water and I still have zero problems playing a luxury video game everyday for fun/work? It doesn't make sense. Why would people as poor as Mall and Jess donate water when they are just scraping by also? If I'm living on the edge of death due to the lack of water, I sure as hell am not giving anything to a person playing a game. Moreover, I would try to organize revolt. People need water. I'll worry about luxuries like games once some stability has returned to society. In Firebreak, however, Kornher-Stace asks readers to somehow swallow this.

The other issue I have with Firebreak, which in fact is another part of the setting, is that Kornher-Stace did it, she played the 'Won't somebody please think of the children!!' card. (Simpsons fans, please nod.) Point blank: the central conflict revolves around corporations stealing children to be molded and used/abused for the purposes of war. While humanity has certainly done this in its history, the near-future Western world depicted doesn't jive with this level of depravity. Mal earns as a dog walker. There are cafes where people chat over coffee. There are “7-11s” everywhere where people buy chips and soda—chips and soda! And on top of this corps are stealing kids to turn them into mechwarriors?!?!? It's a leap to say the least, one that the reader is also asked to swallow. I also take issue in the novel with a bit of the forced emotion, but it can be borne much easier than the setting.

In the end, the components of Firebreak are both familiar and a degree apart. If you have just minimal knowledge of online games and manga/anime, then the novel will echo, which is a compliment. Beyond 'designing a game', Kornher-Stace does a good job giving the reader a feel for being a devotee and interacting with others in a virtual world. Where the novel cuts itself off at the knees is the extremity of the setting. Comparing it to the largely realistic life Mal leads, there are not a lot of dots connecting the two, which makes it difficult to take any commentary the book might be attempting, seriously. For the reader who doesn't care about those things, this is a fun, fast-paced book.

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