The first two novels with the name of Steven Barnes on their cover came with Larry Niven's above it and this first solo effort highlights how he had some work to do to cut it solo. Barnes can clearly write and he does a great deal here that's unusual and interesting, but there's little structure behind it. That said, I enjoyed this more than many seem to have done, albeit not how I expected.
It's a science fiction novel but only awkwardly. It's emphatically grounded, for a start, ignoring the flights of cultural fancy in 'Dream Park' and the space adventure of 'The Descent of Anansi'. It's very urban, set in a future Los Angeles, one fractured after the big one hit. Our primary characters are people of colour and most are poor, struggling to survive in a broken city, a community growing up around the act of scavenging the buried parts of the city for food and valuables. Drugs are a strong focus. However, it's often the men's adventure novel that the paperback cover art suggests, even if its largely misleading.
I struggled with 'Street Lethal' for quite a while and I wonder how much of that is the uneasy combination of genres. Certainly a lot is due to the odd nature of our lead, Aubry Knight, who spends a good part of the book trying not to do anything at all except to avoid everything and everyone else. That makes sense, given where we go, but it's hard to get behind a man who's dark and depressing, even as an obvious victim, and there's nobody else to grab us for a long while.
Knight is a big man and a fast one too, a talented nullboxer* on the way up, quite literally as fights take place in orbit, but that trajectory stops as this book begins because the opening scene features him getting set up and sent to jail for fifteen years. His supposed girl, Maxine Black, is the one who betrays him and she does so at the bidding of Luis Ortega, a local crime lord for whom Knight used to work. A dark vengeance starts to build that we know will dominate much of what's to come.
Fortunately, that revenge story isn't all we get and, in fact, isn't really what we get at all, given that Maxine is sidelined quickly and Ortega is far more of a beginning than an ending. Especially given that this is the start of a trilogy, I wonder what Barnes actually had in mind when he sat down to began the actual writing. Did he outline the trilogy initially or write it from the seat of his pants? The reason I ask is that this feels a lot more like two short novels than one mid-size one and I know there are two books to go to complete his story.
I liked the first half of this a lot less than the second. It's the origin story for Knight, set up by Ortega and sent to Death Valley Maximum Security Penitentiary. Much of what happens here has little bearing on what's to come except to explain to us how driven Knight is to seek revenge, how isolated he is willing to make himself and how there's still a spark of decency under the air of danger that surrounds him like an aura.
For instance, the prison is the base for a spare parts operation run by the deputy warden. A federal statute allows federal prisoners to donate limbs or organs in return for money or a reduction in sentence but, in practice this isn't entirely voluntary and the deputy warden always finds someone to meet whatever need is passed down. They want Knight but he doesn't want to know, going to extremes to avoid becoming involved. Much of this is a self-imposed isolation but part of it is the fact that he has no intention of working for the wrong side ever again.
Of course, the story to come is going to involve revenge and redemption and I appreciated it more once we got past all the preliminaries and down to the business at hand. Barnes is very strong on character here, taking his sweet time to develop Aubry Knight and doing that as much through the other major characters as through him. When Maxine descends through grub addiction, the help of another woman, known as Promise, saves her life and it's Promise who dominates the second half of the book, along with a gentleman called Kevin Warrick, who has, or at least believes he has, some sort of messianic purpose.
For a novel that features so many lows, not just Knight's mindset after his career and free life are wrenched away from him, but parts of the city in a rather original post-apocalyptic scenario, there are highs and some of those come from the use of drugs. The basic drug in this future is an interesting one, derived from the grubs of an insect, but there's a new one in town that shakes up everything. It's a love drug that partly resembles Viagra, over a decade before that was patented, but goes beyond it to address emotional as well as physical needs. However, it's also addictive.
If there's a theme here, it's tied to drugs and what they can do. They help and they hinder. They provide life and death. They bring people together and they tear them apart. They change people in positive or negative ways. They aren't inherently good or bad but can be either depending on circumstances. And they're usually a struggle. In many ways, they're an avatar for life as every decision here could be made without drugs but generally isn't and the people who need to make those decisions apparently need that outside factor to do so.
I'm interested in seeing how this series progresses. It wouldn't surprise me to find that 'Gorgon Child', the book that followed this six years later, is endowed with a completely different tone. Change is the most overt constant here, along with the fact that all the good guys die. Before that, though, there's a solo standalone novel; the start of the 'Heorot' series, written with Niven and Jerry Pournelle; and the second in the 'Dream Park' series, again written with Niven. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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