Author: T. R. Napper
Publisher: Grimdark Magazine, Feb/March 2020
A collection of stories about the outsiders – the criminals, the soldiers, the addicts, the mathematicians, the gamblers and the cage fighters, the refugees and the rebels. From the battlefield to alternate realities to the mean streets of the dark city, we walk in the shoes of those who struggle to survive in a neon-saturated, tech-noir future.
Twelve hard-edged stories from the dark, often violent, sometimes strange heart of cyberpunk, this collection – as with all the best science fiction – is an exploration of who were are now. In the tradition of Dashiell Hammett, Philip K Dick, and David Mitchell, Neon Leviathan is a remarkable debut collection from a breakout new author.
“Everything is memory, save the thin edge of the present”
I’ve always thought the generations born in the 20th century are a little unlucky in some respects – born late enough to taste the beginnings of the tech revolution; born too soon to experience the eutopia of its potential fully realised.
Neon Leviathan, along with Black Mirror before it, has made me completely reconsider such a notion.
Of course, there have been loads of books predicting a dystopian future in which technological advancement has caused societal devolution, but it just feels so much more relevant, plausible and terrifying here. George Orwell predicted a future we pretty much have much of the technology available for. Whilst some of it is scarily closer to reality than we would have desired, there’s no real worry that it’s going to become a complete reality. Neon Leviathan gives us a future that could gradually come to fruition before the chance to notice it happening.
A cyberpunk future of on-retina displays, neural implants, exo-memory, coloured blips to denote community and political standing. So much potential for improving oneself, the community, the experience of life. Yet T. R. Napper gives us a noir, cynical exploration of a dark, grim, stifling and controlling society, devoid of privacy or any real choice, that feels completely realistic and plausible. This makes the book more anxiety-inducing than any slasher or monster story.
The book’s publisher, Grimdark Magazine, should give you a clue that it isn’t a barrel of laughs, despite plenty of lighter and warmer moments. The chapter ‘A Strange Loop’ really hit me for its depressing plausibility; a man caught in a downward spiral, having sold his most important memories to a memory franchise. Having become obsessed with betting on weather patterns ‘on-retina’ (basically a display seen through your own eyes) he loses his wife and child. Attempts to get them back are further reduced as he becomes more detached from reality and more of his memories become property of the franchise, his growing bank account serving as no route to happiness.
The book takes place in the last two or three decades of the 21st century behind a backdrop of a Vietnam and Australia at war with China, America no longer existent. Each chapter is a separate story, all building together to give you a bigger picture of the overall world. Although each should generally be read as its own story, there are references scattered throughout and it does pay to make a note of the dates to see the world descend from something closer to familiarity to what could be described as a somewhat post-apocalyptic future in 2193.
Being highly critical, one of the book’s strengths is also one of its weaknesses. The jumping from time periods and characters does successfully help build this big picture of a well-thought out world and society, but it can affect the flow. Because of the ‘stop-start’ nature of the book, I didn’t always get that ‘one more page’ feeling and I sometimes had to remind myself what year each chapter was set in. A couple of the longer chapters (especially Dark on a Darkling Earth) show that Napper is skilled in developing a longer narrative as well as a short story, which had me yearning for more development of any of the characters or storylines. Perhaps a full novel therefore may be something he looks at in future now the foundations of the world are all in place. I couldn’t really decrease the score for this though, as there was no attempt to disguise the fact from the outset that this is a collection, not one story.
This does however have the advantage of making the book easier to pick up for a few minutes at a time, reading a story and then coming back to it later which is a good thing when pushed for reading time especially.
I haven’t read a lot of cyberpunk to compare this to. Having watched and enjoyed Black Mirror, this would certainly appeal to readers/watchers of technologically dystopian futures. Above all else, it really made me think. For a book to change your outlook on life is a huge achievement. I almost had the bravery to label it the 1984 of this generation; I genuinely feel this will be seen as a really important work in time to come and the potential for ‘Napper’ to eventually be spoken in the same sentence as ‘Gibson, Dick, Leguin, Huxley, Wells.’