Neon Leviathan by T.R. Napper Book Review

Write on: Tue, 18 Feb 2020 by  in Charles' Reviews Read 2131


Cyberpunk remains one of the most enduring new genres of science fiction, having been created during the Reaganite/Thatcher era with an idea that computers as well as corrupt looter capitalism would eventually proliferate beyond all control. Indeed, there's a solid argument that cyberpunk is no longer a science fiction genre because so much of what it predicted has come to pass. The video games WATCH_DOGS and WATCH_DOGS 2 take place in the present-day of Chicago and San Fransisco while otherwise being classic cyberpunk tales of hackers versus the evil rich. There's still cyberpunk tales in the near and far future, though, like the BBC's BLACK MIRROR and ALTERED CARBON (now on Netflix).

In simple terms, cyberpunk is a dystopian form of science fiction where technology has not made humanity's problems any better, only created new ones. It is not a Luddite or anti-technology genre, quite the opposite as it often fetishizes advancements in tech, but it believes the problems inherent to society are a result of human nature. It is greed, classicism, apathy, and selfishness that make up humanity's problems. So, when you create a device that can cure cancer, a corporation is very likely to make sure only the very rich can use it as we see in the movie ELYSIUM.

NEON LEVIATHAN is a short story collection by T.R. Napper set in Australia during as well as after a brutal three way war between the Land Down Under, Vietnam, and China. In the future, memories can be harvested and sold like commodities. They can also be altered at will. Life has taken on the cheapness of a video game and it is very easy to become confused about the nature of what is real or not given so many things can affect your understanding of what's going on.

Each of the stories deals with a wide variety of antiheroes ranging from criminals to academics to professional soldiers. Almost all of them are fatally flawed to some degree and quite a few of them are clinically insane (or are they?). One of my favorite stories in the book deals with  a mathematician who makes all of his money via gambling. He then thinks an alien debt collector has come to threaten him for lost winnings but can't be certain because he's severely mentally ill and off his meds. Trying to figure out what was real, what was not, and whether any of that had any importance to the central character helped make it one of the best stories within.

Much of the book deals with matters of debt, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the contradictions of human society's expectations. Another solid story is the simple premise of a father who wants to get his family out of a war zone but can't afford to do so. It is a universal story that includes cybernetics, the internet, and a global super-state but doesn't need it to matter. Another story has a character trying to blackmail their way into sole custody of their child using social media to make their partner look like a monster. That story isn't science fiction anymore and is all the stronger for its realism.

Unfortunately, that is one of my issues with the book even if it's a minor complaint. The book very much feels like it was written as a vision of the future from the Eighties versus a vision from today. A lot of the things it deals with like video game addiction and social media are not quite far enough from real life today to be science fiction. It feels like a vision of the future twenty years in the future than the fifty or sixty that it might have been intended to be. Then again, I've long maintained that we live in a cleaner version of the cyberpunk future envisioned in the Eighties. Still, the frequent allusions to Vietnam, shattered vets, and economics feels like its alluding to the Reaganite-Thatcher era versus the Trump-Johnson.

The Australia envisioned by T.R. Napper is a place that is on the outside of a global economic boom where people are still as likely to become destitute as they are in our world (if not more so). They make poor decisions in hopes of staying ahead of the expenses of living while often getting themselves even further in debt. The satire is well done as it's clear none of this is our hero's fault (well, maybe for believing they could get ahead of things in the first place). Many of these stories end horribly for the protagonists and have a kind of horror movie twist to them, which I rather liked. Looter capitalism can be like a horror movie if it sinks its fangs into you.

This is a book that should be read in chunks instead of one story after another. The neon-filled, rain-soaked streets of Australia is a place that can sometime bleed over into each of the stories. It's a place that should be read in-between other more optimistic fiction because it can get depressing reading one fool after another being destroyed by new technology, like if you read Lovecraft's heroes getting eaten in fifteen stories straight. A few of the stories do have happy endings, though, and are welcome respites from the gloomy grimdark world of the future.

In conclusion, this is a very solid piece of science fiction and has real human emotions driving each of its stories. They're dark, gritty, and cynical--perfect for the person who enjoys their future bleak as well as uncompromising. Cyberpunk is frequently stated to be dead but I believe it's alive and well, just a wee bit dated feeling here. That may add to the appeal of those who prefer Neuromancer to Agency.

Available here

Last modified on Friday, 25 December 2020 19:12
C.T. Phipps

C.T Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He is a regular blogger on "The United Federation of Charles".

He's written Agent G, Cthulhu Armageddon, Lucifer's Star, and The Supervillainy Saga.