Nicole Kornher-Stace’s work is new to me, but the inventive Firebreak (2021) makes a solid first impression. A bracing, action-packed read, its vision is dark and dystopian, but shot through with heart and hope, confronting current issues through a speculative lens. Firebreak’s future posits a new world order dominated (even moreso than now) by corporations, and in a truly American fashion the capitalist rivalry here is binary, dominated by two mega-companies: Stellaxis Innovations and Greenleaf. For years these two powerful groups have waged an unrelenting war on the streets of New Liberty, the eastern seaboard megacity where the novel takes place. Mallory Parker lives a grim life of futuristic serfdom in a hotel dormitory in “old town,” hording water rations and surviving on the meager proceeds of her gig economy life. Her passion, though, is virtual gaming, and she subsidizes her income with a livestream she hosts with her best friend Jessa. Mal and Jessa’s game of choice is a violent, contemporary war scenario that parallels the real-world conflict between Stellaxis and Greenleaf. This game lionizes the exploits of real-life Stellaxis super-soldiers, seeding them into the virtual world as powerful non-player characters. By chance, Mal and Jessa catch game footage of one of these heroic operatives, a sighting that leads to a financial sponsor for their stream. At first the opportunity looks like a possible leg up out of a subsistence lifestyle, but ultimately it drags Mal into a deeper investigation of the systemic injustice of the world she lives in, presenting her with daunting and dangerous new challenges.
The future of Firebreak raises more questions than it answers, but as a cautionary allegory for the troubles of modern times it’s an effective one, tackling the many ills of late-stage capitalism and its devastating and shockingly imminent consequences, including climate change, resource scarcity, media manipulation, and burgeoning autocracy. Lest it sound too much like doomscrolling the internet, though, Kornher-Stace gives the subject matter a relatable, sympathetic voice in Mal, who might well stand in for the concerned citizen among us looking for strength and purpose in the daily struggle. Her empathy for suffering and her deep friendship with Jessa make her a rallying figure, and despite the grim backdrop there’s still fun to be had in this world that will be especially relatable to those of us for whom immersive gaming has served as a needed escape. Occasionally I craved a smidge more zip to the pace, but overall Firebreak delivers a satisfying futuristic conspiracy thriller.