Nicole Kornher-Stace is joining us today to talk about her novel, Firebreak. Here’s the publisher’s description:
One young woman faces down an all-powerful corporation in this all-too-near future science fiction debut that reads like a refreshing take on Ready Player One, with a heavy dose of Black Mirror.
Ready Player One meets Cyberpunk 2077 in this eerily familiar future.
“Twenty minutes to power curfew, and my kill counter’s stalled at eight hundred eighty-seven while I’ve been standing here like an idiot. My health bar is flashing ominously, but I’m down to four heal patches, and I have to be smart.”
New Liberty City, 2134.
Two corporations have replaced the US, splitting the country’s remaining forty-five states (five have been submerged under the ocean) between them: Stellaxis Innovations and Greenleaf. There are nine supercities within the continental US, and New Liberty City is the only amalgamated city split between the two megacorps, and thus at a perpetual state of civil war as the feeds broadcast the atrocities committed by each side.
Here, Mallory streams Stellaxis’s wargame SecOps on BestLife, spending more time jacked in than in the world just to eke out a hardscrabble living from tips. When a chance encounter with one of the game’s rare super-soldiers leads to a side job for Mal—looking to link an actual missing girl to one of the SecOps characters. Mal’s sudden burst in online fame rivals her deepening fear of what she is uncovering about BestLife’s developer, and puts her in the kind of danger she’s only experienced through her avatar.
Author Kornher-Stace’s adult science fiction debut—Firebreak— is loaded with ambitious challenges and a city to save.
What’s Nicole’s favorite bit?
I had to give this a lot of thought before sitting down to write it because my process is pretty unorthodox and mostly consists of me going ooh, shiny! over some random fact I read somewhere, or some random line that pops into my head, or some random image I see somewhere, etc. and then waiting until enough of those shinies glom together in my head in such a way that they reach some kind of critical mass where they spontaneously coalesce into a book. And then I sit down and write it. (The writing part is about eighteen million times faster than the waiting part, which, if there’s a way to hurry it along, I haven’t found it yet.)
So my books tend to deal with a lot of really disparate ideas and themes that probably don’t really belong together in the same zip code, let alone the same book. For example, my YA debut Archivist Wasp was about a post-apocalyptic ghosthunter priestess of a far-future corrupt religious cult centered on a constellation-based mythos, the near-future ghost of a genetically engineered supersoldier, and their Unlikely Alliance slow-burn enemies-to-besties quest into a surreal and dreamlike underworld in search of a long-vanished ghost. All the worldbuilding there came from me reading The Golden Bough at the same time as playing Fallout 3. If that gives you some idea of the kind of intractable weirdo process I have to work with.
So I spent like a week kicking around the question of what on earth my favorite bit of Firebreak is. (Turns out that even for an essay, the kicking-around of the ideas takes ages longer than the writing. Why, brain. Why.) Firebreak, like all my books, is above all else a seething froth of my various passions. It’s about a pair of gamer women who, in a corporate-owned city in the year 2134, scrape together a large part of their gig-economy living by streaming a massively popular VR wargame, but it’s also about water rights activism and sticking it to the man and Black Mirror-esque technology and friendships stronger than death, while also centering a lot of the things on my ongoing list of stuff I wish I could see in more books but I can’t find it often and/or anywhere, such as: an asexual/aromantic main character, an obsessive platonic crush, a narrator who’s Bad At People, But Trying, etc. Also it (like all my books) very deliberately gives friendships the same weight and space and gravity that other books often reserve for romances. And it’s a critique of hypercommodification in a corporate-controlled police state. While at its core it’s about people looking out for each other under the heel of a system that sees them as customers first and citizens second. Also there are mechs. And swords.
There’s so much stuff in there I loved being able to shove with gleeful and possibly-misguided abandon into a get-along plot t-shirt together, but my favorite bit isn’t even any of that. My favorite bit is a character. I can’t even talk about him much without diving headfirst into deep spoiler territory, and Firebreak’s plot structure didn’t allow me to include anywhere near as much of him in it as I would’ve preferred. And when he does appear, he’s already spent the better part of his life having systematically and strategically suppressed his personality in a way that underpins a grander scheme while also subverting a certain trope I hate, and the narrative timeframe of the story doesn’t give him enough space to spontaneously—and unrealistically—unlearn having done that. Meanwhile (and if you write or draw or game or do anything else involving intensive character creation, you will probably know these feels) this is one of those characters that I’ve had living in my head for ages and know extremely well, so it was a big challenge to write him in such a way that only hints of his true personality get to emerge, and they are few and far between, and all the more precious—hopefully—for their rarity.
I realize this type of characterization isn’t to everyone’s taste, but as a person with a long and storied history of being very bored by book/movie/TV/game protagonists while fixating on the side characters with three lines of spoken dialogue at best, it’s very much my jam. I’ve always been super interested in the negative space around characterization: what we’re not being told, and why, versus what we are. And while it’s not my first time writing a character in such a way, it’s my first time writing one in this way for this reason, and if there’s another character type I’m a sucker for, it’s the one running the self-destructive long game in order to protect someone they care about. As much as I would have loved to give him about eight thousand more pages in Firebreak, my tendency to be an extremely stubborn write-exactly-what-you-want-to-read author went to war with my knowledge that doing so would be detrimental to the story, and this time the story won.
That said. It’s been extremely reassuring to see that so far most early readers seem to totally get this character under all the subtlety and understatedness, and appreciate him all the more for it. When you have multiple people literally telling you they would die for someone you made up in your head—whatever else you screwed up in your book, you’re clearly doing at least something right.
Nicole Kornher-Stace is the author of the Norton Award finalist Archivist Wasp and its sequel, Latchkey. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, and Fantasy Magazine, as well as many anthologies. She lives in New Paltz, New York, with her family. She can be found online at nicolekornherstace.com or on Twitter @WireWalking.