REVIEW: Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Today we have another special book review post. The book is Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace, and it’s coming out on May 4, 2021 from Simon & Schuster. Aro/Ace, Science Fiction, Dystopia

I read Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace back in 2020, in November, while I had Covid. It’s a story about a gamer named Mallory set in a post-apocalyptic world that will be familiar to folks who’ve read Atwood or other writers who have posited the end-results of a totally unregulated market. Corporations own everything in this future. And it is a future that resembles the past, a past that has happened right here in microcosm in the early 1900s — and one that feels like it really could happen tomorrow.

Mallory, the main character, is by day a refugee, sharing a single room with about ten other people in a hotel which has been converted to house her and her peers. All of these folks were orphaned as children. Their lives are regimented — each of them have embedded chips that show their company rations and credits. They get water rations once a day. They eat ramen and peanut butter crackers and somehow don’t succumb to malnutrition. Mal does a lot of things to survive. She is a dog sitter, for one, and she picks up other odd jobs as they become available. She also plays daily in BestLife, a virtual reality battle that mirrors the very one that made her homeless. She and her best friend are supported by people who watch their stream in a system that reminded me a great deal of the modern Patreon — so it seems a boon when she comes across one of the illustrious corporate super soldiers who also have a presence in the game. However, this near sighting sets off a chain of events that pull Mal into deep corporate intrigue, uncovering just how corrupt her world really is.

Firebreak is a timely story because it asks some important questions. What is freedom? What does it mean to own your body when everything that goes into it from the food to the water to the microchip in your brain belongs to someone else? What does it mean to be a citizen in a world that is increasingly driven by consumption, in a world where easily half of interactions occur in virtual space — a space so easily modified, a space where history can be rewritten? How does financial risk sometimes look just as terrible as a gun to the head? Kornher-Stace asks all these questions deftly, in singing, zinging prose.

This story is 1984 as oligarchy and it’s also fast-paced action, resulting in a deep look at moral choices and their consequences that is nonetheless entertaining. If you liked some of the stories I discussed in my post on eldritch, Lovecraft-inspired anti-capitalist tales, you might really enjoy this book.

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