"It’s not often you’ll see a congregation of the Muslim faithful handing over a six-foot semi-conscious transvestite to a carload of militant queer prostitutes wielding baseball bats. "
New Clone City, or NC as it is commonly referred to colloquially throughout the novel, is a vibrant city as I've ever read. While I would not label them prose exactly, Mike Hembury is fantastic with descriptive detail, weaving a dense relationship from setting to the characters. The narrative begins with separate chapters for each, gradually interspersing them into longer chapters after the narrative begins to weave their respective stories together into common threads; cast about somewhat superstitiously, even seemingly haphazardly, from the start.
“Walk around the NC, and you will see what I mean. Ethnicities from all over the planet rub along together, women can walk the streets at night unmolested, dykes and faggots can be found sharing the same streets with fundamentalists of all persuasions. Such is the reputation of the NC, such are its forms of social interaction. And it is this cultural ballast which forms a heavy counterweight to our society’s need for fundamental change.”
Jimmy Lee Chang, of the Singapore Irish Changs, is an immigrant and an older, a little bit rough around the edges guy with a good heart that gets diagnosed with cancer.
"So if you want to be heroic, stay and build this weird movement of yours. Everything else…” says Jimmy, pushing back his chair. “Is just pissing in the wind”"
Claire works as an activist as a vegan eco-revolutionary but is consumed with conflicting feelings. Seemingly not making a difference as she goes to work and sees the drones and the fear of the authority baked into every individual she knows makes it hard to fathom just what difference her work actually does. That is until she meets Laila and Llya and is forced to confront both ends of that spectrum.
"For a bunch of vegan eco-revolutionaries the hacker guy with the lank black hair is something they can’t quite pin down, classify, categorize."
While dating her boyfriend Llya, a hacker trying to balance his work, hobby, and obsession with hacking; trying to dredge up a large payday and simultaneously putting his relationship with Claire in jeopardy in the doing. Both of which tend to be the narratives that insert the most cyberpunk technology.
"Even if you just do it old school—no overlay, no augmentation—it’s hard to ignore the screens everywhere, vying for your attention."
"Most just fiddle with their phones. Worry their implants. Surreptitiously wipe the pus from seeping wetware. Noodle the weeb. Perform the spastic eye movements required to check their incoming on their spex."
Laila embodies that previously mentioned authority Claire hates and fears so much. Serving her country after also immigrating to the NC, she has worked her way up in the security sector of the government. Intelligent, intimidating, and independent she is in charge of a new operation to destabilize NC in order to enact the machinations of forces larger than her. When she bucks against the authority, despite her accrued position and power, her boss, Al, and she comes to a bloody conflict.
"Part of Laila wishes that she could just let her love off the leash, just let it flow, and take its course."
Gene, or Jeanie, has been a sex worker since he was young. When working a particular area of the city policed by their own, another younger girl, Ursula, is picked up by a predator after Jeanie dismisses them, sensing danger, and it is Ursula who pays for it in the harshest of ways. Gene takes it upon himself to see justice done, no matter the cost.
“I’m Gene. Or Jeanie. Depending.” “Depending? On what?” “Oh, time of the day, time of the month, spur of the moment, whims, urges, wings of desire, that kind of thing.”
As the book proceeds, the at-times-strange narrator will drop some flavor from a third person point of view. One minor quibble that comes along with a couple others. For instance, the ending makes it seem like this may not be the first book but this was not telegraphed beforehand so it ends a bit suddenly. I am honestly unsure if it's setting up another book or not, so knowing one way or the other definitively would be good. Another is how Claire and Llya initially meet in the book feels really contrived and stilted. Thankfully the subsequent fiction focusing on their relationship is rich and heartfelt, so it doesn't matter much, but it did stick out as a thorn until I'd gotten further in the book because it was so odd. He kind of stalks her a bit and then, as young as they are, pretty much want to sleep together right away after she confronts him following her. Kind of strange.
“Well, we’re a bit like the Buddhists. They have a deeply spiritual religion, but don’t believe in god. That works for us too. Our spiritual practice encompasses all manifestations of the female principle, in all religions, with a particular focus on the more combative, antipatriarchal manifestations. We’re not into dogma, we’re just into what works.”
The signage on the press kit gave me the impression that the book would be more action-packed, as indicative of the tropes of cyberpunk which it is so labeled as. This is not the case at all. It's almost a slice of life through much of it. But more like urban fiction coupled with a cyberpunk, futuristic world. Once I shifted gears I enjoyed it despite my expectations that there would be bullets, mirrorshades, and blood.
Lastly, I thought Laila was underused throughout the book. She's unapologetically queer and badass and seemed cut short. I wish she was more of the main character than a side character. The main characters are Claire, Jimmy, and Gene; though chapters are dedicated to others like Laila. She certainly has her own aims and purpose in the fiction. I just wish she got more chances to beat the snot out of someone or something.
Speaking of queer characters and people of color, this book has plenty, I'm happy to say. On top of that, they are all fairly intersectional with current issues. Perhaps my favorite part of what this book does is recharacterizing "punks". All of them, in one way or another, at one time or another, are poised against systematic oppression. Resisting and rejecting the notions of social pressures and conformity. Gene's story of becoming Jeanie and the notion of the Church Of Kali, empowering queer people in an introspective way without being a traditional, organized religion.
"These days, incidents are kept to a minimum. The johns are for the most part polite and on their best behaviour. The new ones are quick to sniff the mores of the street. And anyone who steps out of line rapidly finds themselves surrounded by a bunch of incensed and militant trans and drag queen sexworkers who really have zero tolerance for that kind of thing."
This story, with my very limited knowledge of queer spaces, was the one I was unsure as to how well it was handled. It felt like it was done well to me, but that means very little. When Gene is navigating the fiction the pronouns are he/him when Gene becomes Jeanie, the pronouns change to she/her. A drag queen, this character was absolutely my favorite one of the bunch. That said, there is basically no typical cyberpunk character to speak of at all in this atypical cyberpunk story. Particularly, Claire's situation was initially quite bland and flourished into something interesting and refreshing.
"And so it was that Gene was initiated into the rites and practices of the domination trade. And that in turn gave rise to Jeanie. Not so much gave rise to perhaps, as formalized. For Jeanie was certainly always there with Gene, but she was without form in the world."
There is page count given to sex scenes between a cross-dresser and a man, a man and a woman, and two women. There's an organized riot against the establishment, protesting a good cause, while also being realistic about what it will accomplish and how they must do so in order to not have the protesters be hurt should the police decide to feel provoked. If cross-dressers and queer folk banding together in common cause against a totalitarian-like government isn't punk, I don't know what is, really.
"There something about this guy. Something that spells trouble, casual violence, anger issues, pent-up rage. Money, power, and a habit of being obeyed."
I have lobbied for cyberpunk as a genre to be continuing despite the punk movement being gone and the sub-genre going "mainstream" and entering the general consciousness. Resistance still happens! It's important for new protagonists with alternate viewpoints and representations to be injected into cyberpunk fiction such as this. In most stories like this characters are moved about as though they were on a chess board, usually by inscrutable powers and generally omnipresent. In the NC though, these powers are humanized and grounded. Complicated by the ordinary, quiet revolutions of queer people not allowing for anything less than justice for one of their own. It is not uncommon in cyberpunk to have fiction centered on the marginalized navigating spaces not meant for them and forging the path forward in the future we'd like to see, despite these many dangers staying progress and attempting to dehumanize the socially unacceptable. I feel very happy to classify it as cyberpunk and enjoyed this for being so blatantly, unapologetically queer housed in a city made to feel like another living character we get to see much of and from many perspectives. 4/5 with a release date of May 30th.
"...in that split second before maximum twilight and re-illumination, there was a brief moment of uncertainty. A moment, Jeanie felt sure, that anything was possible."