NEON LEVIATHAN by T R Napper (Book Review)
“We can only exist in the places they’ve forgotten. Our external world was colonised centuries ago, given over to the oligarchs. Our internal spaces are being colonised, as well. Our desires, choices, even our memories, poured into the moulds they inscribe.”
– Ghosts of a Neon God
T. R. Napper’s debut short story collection Neon Leviathan (2020) is an impressive debut. The stories taken individually are powerful and evocative works of cyberpunk noir, with Napper showing a deft and charismatic deployment of tropes and ideas developed from William Gibson and Philip K. Dick. Napper’s stories happen in the aftermath of trauma, focusing on the down and outs, those left behind by a society shaped increasingly by automation and algorithm that cares little for human life or dignity. However, taken as a whole, the loosely connected stories form a future history of our world, from the relatively near 2038 through to 2193, with most of the action happening in the 2090s. The mosaic narrative explores the end game of neoliberal capitalism, as our very memories and desires are bought and controlled by gigantic impersonal corporations, soldiers fight proxy wars across Southeast Asia that they cannot distinguish from computer games, the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows ever wider and immigrants from technologically advanced wars and climate change struggle to survive in a system where they are accorded no rights. That all this is conveyed almost entirely from the ground view, from life as lived by ordinary people trying to get by in an increasingly inhumane world, makes it all the more impactful.
Neon Leviathan draws much from Gibson’s visions of a crime-soaked cyber metropolis in his Burning Chrome collection (1986), and much from classic Philip K. Dick in his depiction of ordinary schlubs whose lives are caught up in the bizarre complexities of the world they live in. Napper’s stories consciously adopt a cyberpunk aesthetic, but importantly they also remember Gibson’s two key dicta: “the street finds its own uses for things” and “the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”. Equally crucially, Napper is a fine stylist himself, his stories told with deft, evocative prose, his characters fully drawn and believable, his dialogue sharp and snappy. Rather than Gibson’s settings of the USA and Japan, Napper’s stories range across Australia, Vietnam and Southeast Asia, drawing from Napper’s lived experience as a diplomat and aid worker. Thus rather than being merely pastiche, Napper is able to match the cyberpunk aesthetic to our modern concerns about internet corporate surveillance, our tendency to outsource more and more of our personal information and memories to digital media, and the way that the internet has failed to create a more egalitarian society but rather has enabled right-wing dictators and amoral corporations to take more and more control. Thus Napper manages to pay tribute to the imagination and style of the early cyberpunk pioneers whilst showing us how the genre can still be relevant and resonant today.
Many of these stories deal explicitly with trauma, whether this is the trauma of veterans who are unable to face the horrors of war, or immigrants whose lives are uprooted by conflict and are greeted in their new country with paranoia and hostility. Chi Cong Nguyen in ‘Flame Trees’ is proscribed treatment to erase his traumatic memories of war so that he can reintegrate into society, but his unwillingness to forget the horrors he has witnessed because he wants to bear witness to the victims of atrocity is overruled by his work and medical professionals. Across ‘The Line’ and ‘A Shout is a Prayer for the Waiting Centuries’, we see how George Duulngari’s life with his family is taken away from him as he is bought by a company to perform in cage fights, forcing him to recapitulate the trauma that his wife’s mother thought she had managed to save her future family from. The drug-addled soldiers in ‘Opium for Ezra’ can no longer tell reality from a computer game. These stories show the impact that violence, both perpetrated in war and perpetrated maintaining borders physical and social, have not just on the original people who experience but how it spirals out to affect their families, friends and loved ones. They also candidly show how little invested our society is in healing these traumas, finding it easier to throw these people away or sweep them under the rug than to face these issues.
Neon Leviathan as a whole is preoccupied with memory and the importance of remembering, however traumatic and destructive that may be. At the heart of the future history portrayed in the collection is the Kandel-Yu machine, a device which can record, alter and erase human memory. Over the course of the collection, the stories are arranged in nonchronological order but the reader pieces together the underlying story of how the machine is originally built to help patients deal with trauma, but is bought up by powerful corporations and misused as a tool of social control to change remembered history so that it aligns with the official version of the truth. The technology is ultimately hacked and used to spread memory viruses, ultimately resulting in a post-apocalyptic future where people are unable to remember who they are or where they come from. The stories form a meditation on how our identities are constructed from our memories, both personal and shared, and what happens when we are too casual about selling these memories off. In the wonderful ‘Ghosts of a Neon God’, Col Charles reflects on how the digital infrastructure of modern megacorporations has turned us into products to be bought and sold, and the dehumanising effect this has:
“We are a product of the freewave. The single most important product. Every moment we use it we contribute to the knowledge of the mega-corps. Monetizing our data, freely, willingly giving them the information they need to perfect their control.”
Like us, the characters in Neon Leviathan have allowed their consensus reality to be bought and sold, and so must watch as reality is warped, Philip K. Dick-style, around them by the capital forces it most benefits.
Perhaps the most powerful story is also the longest. ‘The Weight of the Air, The Weight of the World’ has strong echoes of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and shows how one woman is forced to betray her lover to the government so that she can keep custody of her son. The story allows Napper to spread out over slightly longer length, to really drive the nails into his characters and the reader. However for all its nightmarish dystopia, the world of the story, where one’s social credit determines one’s life from employability to whether or not you are fit to be a parent, is uncomfortably close to our recognisable reality. As the story’s corporate villains explain, the advantage of social media combined with something like the Kendel-Yu machine is that the physical ghettos of the city become reflected in the structure of the citizen’s mind and how they think:
“Listen. The world is made up of two political entities: the bunker and the camp. Not just the real camps, the ones we send the reds to, and not just the real bunkers: the ones we retreat to should the vulgar masses rise up against the rule of law. Not just the architecture of our cities—bunkers like this building and the district it resides in, where those of dubious political standing may not enter. Not easily. Districts protected by law, by drone, by truncheon, and by thirty-dollar lattes. …. The external cityscape is not enough. To truly make the world one of bunker or camp, one must control memory. We remodel the neural architecture of the human mind as bunker or camp”
Like much of the best SF, Neon Leviathan shows us a warning of where we might be going, and asks us to rethink our relationship to the technology our everyday lives are enmeshed in, all whilst offering engaging and absorbing entertainment. It’s a powerful and timely read, and I very much look forward to seeing what Napper does next.