“Begin as you mean to go on” is common advice for writers. K.C. Alexander follows it to the letter. On the first page of Nanoshock, which follows her blistering 2016 cyberpunk debut Necrotech, her hard-as-nails cyborg protagonist Riko performs a too-unprintably-graphic-for-this-website sex act with a nun “under the cheap light of a neon Jesus.” The book proceeds apace.
If that opening turns you off (and you don’t have to be a prude for it to do so), the rest of the book probably isn’t for you. Still, to put it down there would be to miss out on something truly one-of-a-kind: an intense, gleefully profane, fearlessly inventive, unapologetically grimy cyberpunk caper with an unforgettable protagonist.
Riko is streetwise and diamond hard (think Jessica Jones with an exponential attitude increase, plus a cybernetic arm). As the sequel opens, she is more desperate and more determined than ever to find the people who have screwed her over and wiped her memory—but not without first having some fun with that nun, who she beds (well, not beds) on the way to meet with her latest contact in a series of thankless freelance jobs.
“The people in the rack range from street trash to slummers, saints and sinners smashed together–a hive of humanity wrapped in vinyl, synth, light, and scraps.”
Riko is talking about the low- and no-class denizens of the one decaying section of her world in which she feels at least a little bit home, but the quote also applies to the storyverse Alexander has created. This dystopia seems to have devolved from the United States of America, where an ecological disaster has rendered much of the land too dangerous for habitation. Surviving communities are divided into zones ruled by various factions or gangs, with the law loosely enforced by a corrupt police force. It’s survival of the fittest, with little compassion allowed for the weak. Weak can mean dead, and fast.
Humanity’s survival is assisted by the presence of nanobytes introduced to babies at birth. The tech can repair the body, if needed, but there’s a tipping point at which the artificial takes over the “meatspace” of the brain. The person dies, while the tech lives on. (The phenomenon gave the first book in the series its title.) Riko’s lover died this way, but Riko can’t remember how or why, because someone has screwed with her own memories. Riko only knows she’s somehow responsible for her lover’s death, and her former gang—people whom she once trusted unthinkingly, and who once trusted her—is filled with potential enemies.
Eveything seems stacked against her in this story, even her own mind.
But Riko’s not into self-pity. She’s into making people pay for what they’ve done, and damn anyone who gets in her way. Damn subtlety as well. In a dictionary, there’s a picture of Riko located under “ornery.” She’s a protagonist perfectly suited to be our guide to a thoroughly ruined world, zooming us through one breakneck action sequence after another as she takes on all comers, from all social strata, reserving her worst contempt for those who’ve hidden the truth from her.
I found myself sucked into this universe, almost as if the fictional nanobytes had been transmitted to me via the book’s pages.
It all ends in a climax that’s oh-so-Riko, defiant to the end, and it sets up the next installment perfectly. While this book can be read independently of Necrotech, I would recommend starting with the first book, if only to ground yourself in Riko’s world, as she’s got no patience for stragglers.
That said, I suspect anyone who loves Nanoshock will soon be at Alexander’s virtual doorstep, demanding more. It is, without doubt, the most vulgar book I’ve read in a long time—well, the most good vulgar one anyway—a badge of honor Riko would wear with pride, and a sneer.