Finding Friendship in a Dystopian Future: Announcing Firebreak, by Andre Norton Award-Nominee Nicole Kornher-Stace

Whether you want to call it a pop culture trend or a reflection of the new global political zeitgeist, there’s no denying that we’re smack in the middle of some kind of Golden Age of the Dystopian Novel. Countless authors have turned their eyes toward the future and found it wanting—whether due to a climate apocalypse, political upheaval, technological collapse, or some combination of the above.

In 2020, Saga Press will deliver another entry in this burgeoning subgenre—one concerned with how society will survive omnipresent corporate dominance over our everyday lives. Firebreak, by Andre Norton Award-nominee Nicole Kornher-Stace (Archivist Wasp), is set in a bleak future in which corporate warfare has reshaped the world, and a young woman named Mallory has to figure out how to live in it.

Today, we’re thrilled to give you your first look at this forthcoming work. Check out a summary below, and keep reading for a few words from the book’s acquiring editor and a Q&A with the author herself.

Like everyone else she knows, Mallory is an orphan of the corporate war. As a child, she lost her parents, her home, and her entire building in an airstrike. As an adult, she lives in a cramped hotel room with eight other people, all of them working multiple jobs to try to afford water and make ends meet. And the job she’s best at is streaming a popular VR war game. The best part of the game isn’t killing enemy combatants, though—it’s catching in-game glimpses of SpecOps operatives, celebrity supersoldiers grown and owned by Stellaris, the corporation that runs the America she lives in.

Until a chance encounter with a SpecOps operative in the game leads Mal to a horrifying discovery: the real-life operatives weren’t created by Stellaris. They were kids, just like her, who lost everything in the war, and were stolen and augmented and tortured into becoming supersoldiers. The world worships them, but the world believes a lie.

The company controls every part of their lives, and defying them puts everything at risk—her water ration, her livelihood, her connectivity, her friends, her life—but she can’t just sit on the knowledge. She has to do something—even if doing something will bring the wrath of the most powerful company in the world down upon her.

Nicole Kornher-Stace is a brilliant futurist, and in the vein of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One combined with an episode of Black Mirror, Firebreak offers a chilling look at what feels like a not-too-distant future America divided by a civil war fought by corporations that only care about their citizens as long as they’re consumers. What will it take to make you rise up?

Navah Wolfe, Saga Press senior editor, found she was immediately drawn to the world of Firebreak.

“The thing about the dystopia in Nicole’s novel is that it feels so exceptionally possible,” Wolfe said. “We already live in such a corporation-dominated world, where corporations are people and corporate interests are elevated above real human interests, so the step beyond to corporations literally being in charge just felt very natural, in an absolutely terrifying way. What does it mean when the government is literally just run by people who want you to be good consumers? That’s horrifying.”

Perhaps more than that, however, Wolfe was pulled in by the relationships between the characters inhabiting this broken future: “[Beyond] the fully-realized, terrifying world—it’s the friendship between the protagonist and her best friend, the ladybromance at the heart of this story,” she said. “Give me a great friendship story, and you’ve got my heart.”

We also got a chance to talk with the author about the book. Below, she shares a bit about what inspired her to write, and why friendships in fiction can often be so much more powerful than romances.
B&N: Your past novels were aimed at a young adult audience but had definite crossover appeal for mature readers. Do you see Firebreak doing the same in the opposite direction? Do you see any difference in writing for adults?

Nicole Kornher-Stace: Honestly, I pay so little attention to marketing labels that I never considered the potential for crossover appeal until long after Firebreak was drafted. But I think that’s always been the case with me. When I wrote Archivist Wasp, I was pitching it as adult, for the entirely well-thought-out reason that it never occurred to me to do otherwise. It was suggested to me that it was a better fit with YA, so that’s how it ended up.

Writing Firebreak, it felt to me as if it could go either way—adult or YA—without really changing anything in the story in either direction. This is probably mostly a result of me reading adult SF from age 8 or 9, and enjoying everything from picture books through middle grade and YA to adult as, well, an adult. While I understand why the marketing labels exist, I personally find them really limiting as a reader, so as a writer I tend to avoid them where I can.

For me, there’s no measurable difference in writing YA or adult. But that is a result of how I like to tell stories. I always prioritize friendships over romantic relationships (more on that below!) and did receive some criticism for Archivist Wasp being a YA novel full of super intense friendship but utterly devoid of romance. I was told that “teens would find nothing to relate to” in a book that was 100 percent without romantic elements. Which made me all the more adamant to write exactly that kind of book.

The really amazing part is the overwhelmingly positive response I’ve been getting ever since from readers—teenage and adult alike—who found that lack of romance refreshing. That was terribly reassuring to see, because that’s the only kind of book I seem to know how to write. Archivist Wasp‘s sequel Latchkey had the same focus on platonic relationships, as does Firebreak, which I wrote without having any solid idea of whether it would be sold as YA or adult. Unlike Archivist Wasp, Firebreak isn’t a coming-of-age story as such. It’s a story about its protagonist’s journey from complacence to radicalization, which is a theme that I hope will find relevance with teen and adult readers alike.

It’s not hard to see reverberations of our present reality in your vision of a corporate-controlled future. Were there any specific elements of our modern day that informed your dystopian vision?
Short answer: Yup! Slightly longer answer: Lots. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been angry at the various awful ways people treat each other, the planet they live on, and the other species they share it with. I remember at one point as a teen being told that when I was an adult I wouldn’t be so angry anymore, that I wouldn’t have the time or the energy or the mental bandwidth or whatever to maintain that level of anger at things that don’t directly impact my ability to pay my bills. That I’d become, somehow, less liberal-minded as I aged, and care less about issues that don’t impact me directly. I’ve found—in the past few years especially—the opposite is true. I’ve been building up rage for a long time. This book is where I let it out.

I had the initial concept for Firebreak shortly after Archivist Wasp came out in 2015. I then went on to spend three years telling myself that while I loved the idea, I wasn’t good enough to write it yet. I made myself work on other things instead, doing research in the hopes that I’d let myself write it eventually, and at one point I realized I was just angry enough to give it a try. I ended up drafting it in six weeks, by far the fastest writing I’ve ever done.

It took some doing to figure out what the worldbuilding focus of Firebreak should be. Looking around even our present day—let alone extrapolating to the year 2134, when the book takes place—there is, if anything, too much to choose from, too many issues to tackle.

I knew I wanted it to be about water rights—the corporate privatization of a resource that belongs to us all— and after reading a number of books and articles and watching a number of documentaries on the topic, I ended up paring back most everything else to keep my focus there. But all human rights issues are intricately intertwined and many of them ended up being part of the fabric of the world of Firebreak.

My protagonist, Mal, is a refugee of a corporate civil war, living on the outskirts of New Liberty, a city built when many of the major coastal cities of today are lost to climate change. She lives in a hotel room with eight other people, all of whom subsist on corporate water rations and whatever unreliable work they can scrape together in an economy that revolves around control of the populace through engineered resource scarcity in a deep surveillance police state. Mal’s main source of income is from streaming BestLife, a massively multiplayer VR video game that’s based on the war in which New Liberty is embroiled, a game that was developed to romanticize that war and shore up ongoing support for it among the city’s consumer-citizens, even as their lives are ruined by it. The game becomes the springboard for Mal’s journey into activism, using the platform of her BestLife stream to tackle real-world issues.

We certainly seem to be in a golden age of dystopian sci-fi. What are your favorite examples of the form?

Fun fact about me: I will recommend books, movies, comics, video games, etc. all day every day, but the second I’m asked for my favorite examples of a genre, my mind snaps to a perfect, pristine blank. It’s a lot of fun on panels. So, not favorites, but ones that occur to me off the top of my head! An amazing classic dystopian is Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, which everyone should read. Moxyland by Lauren Beukes is a dystopian novel I’ve really enjoyed in recent years, as is the Towers trilogy by Karina Sumner-Smith.

As far as visual media goes, I appreciated a whole lot about Snowpiercer and Black Mirror, and love both Mad Max: Fury Road and Edge of Tomorrow (more apocalyptic than dystopian, but still) with the passion of a thousand burning suns.

For really interesting takes on post-apocalyptic (not necessarily dystopian) I highly recommend An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet, Viscera by Gabrielle Squailia, The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison, Blackfish City by Sam Miller, and Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse.

As for my all-time favorite weird post-apocalyptic anything, my heart will always belong to Adventure Time.

Your editor tells me that this book pivots not on a romantic relationship, but on one of friendship. Can you talk about why that was so important to you?

This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, one I’ve written and spoken about extensively before. A good example is my piece for The Book Smugglers here. I’ve also moderated and participated on convention panels on the topic, and I yell about it on Twitter with some frequency.

I think the short answer is simply that, all my life, I’ve had a really hard time finding fictional representation of the kind of relationship that’s important to me as a reader and writer and person. First, I’ve always wanted to see more same-gender friendships, especially between women. I’m seeing some great examples of those lately—again, Karina Sumner-Smith’s Towers trilogy is a shining example, as are the comics Lumberjanes and Rat Queens—but we can always use more.

What I see far, far less of is strong platonic m/f relationships in fiction that entirely avoid any hint of romance, sexuality, or sexual tension. I could probably count on the fingers of one hand how many of these I’ve encountered, and I spend some effort seeking them out. I realized a while back that this is, by an order of magnitude, my favorite type of relationship to write, and one that would have made the world far less confusing for me to navigate growing up if I’d seen it represented at the time. So that’s turned into, more or less, the Thing I Do when I write a book. I go into everything I write fully prepared to turn down offers if they demand I add in a romantic subplot. I’ve had to do this before and I’ll do it again. Absolutely zero regrets. Luckily, I’ve been fortunate enough to find excellent homes for my books, and I haven’t been asked to budge an inch on this point for a very, very long time.

Firebreak is actually built on two friendships. One is between Mal and Jessa, her best friend, roommate, and in-game teammate/business partner. It was really important to me to not only have this very strong friendship between two women, but as a lifelong gamer, to have a book in which the two main characters are gamer women. I wanted to write something of a response to the misogyny I’ve seen in other video-game-based books and movies, and so Mal and her co-streamer in BestLife could only ever have been women. The other friendship is a little weirder, and I don’t want to give away too much about it, but I will say it starts off as a friendcrush—something else I hardly ever see represented—and evolves into something a bit more complex.

Firebreak will be published in the Fall of 2020. Explore Nicole Kornher-Stace’s other novels here.

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