(Note: When I started writing this, I meant it to be a straight forward review of a sci-fi book I read recently called ‘Binary Storm’, but it sort of became a ramble about a bunch of other stuff, including Ernest Cline’s ‘Ready Player One’, Christopher Hinz’s ‘Liege-Killer’ and some of my opinions on current trends in sci-fi writing today. Please try and bear with it, hopefully it’s still an interesting read).
“The world feels a little bit ‘post jokes’, doesn’t it?” comedian Tim Minchin commented in a recent interview.
It got me thinking, is the world a bit ‘post sci-fi’, too?
With the release of the film ‘Ready Player One’ last week, an adaptation of source material that heavily champions the nostalgia of 80s geek culture, I wonder: ‘is mainstream sci-fi looking more to the past than ever before?’
These days, the realms of sci-fi seem to be all about reboots and paying homage to what has already been. Does a contemporary ‘voice’ exist in sci-fi today? Are we just celebrating what has come before, secretly knowing that it will never be topped? In the digital age of instantly accessible mass entertainment, are we just a bit overrun by it all? Do we turn away from the future and resign ourselves to remembering how good things used to be as a preferable alternative?
But hey, I don’t come here to be a downer. Besides, after recently re-reading a lot of my old articles, I’m inclined to go for a more positive approach with my writing from now on.
So, instead of writing about how much I don’t like Ready Player One, or why films like The Dark Knight or games like Jak II are bad (which they obviously aren’t, right? Sorry about that), let me instead try just talking about something that I just really, genuinely like, with absolutely no gripes whatsoever.
So, in 2017 (a pretty recent year by my calculations) I happened to discover two sci-fi stories that absolutely blew me away.
They were both written decades ago...
Ok, so I’m contradicting myself so far, but hear me out.
The first was Edward Lee’s disturbing sci-fi/horror novella In the Year of our Lord: 2202 (which I may do another review on), and the other was Christopher Hinz’s Liege-Killer.
It was this particular book that led me to discover Mr Hinz’s most recent output Binary Storm (released in 2016). I want to review Hinz’s latest book, but I’m also going to be doing back and forth comparisons to Liege-killer.
Liege-Killer is one of my all time favourite books.
I discovered it after having a discussion with a friend to recommended the ‘best sci-fi book that we’d never heard of’’. My recommendation was Poul Anderson’s immortality fable The Boat of a Million Years (a great novel that you should also check out btw), his was Liege-Killer.
Paraphrasing slightly, Liege-Killer was sold to me as the ultimate 80s sci-fi/action/horror/cyber-punk movie that never got to actually be a movie. As a fan of all of those things, I felt compelled to check it out.
So, here’s the basic premise:
Liege-Killer is a Tarantino-esq, Promethean cyber-punk thriller for fans of Terminator, Alien and Demolition Man. It’s set years after humanity leaves a ruined Earth and migrates to a peaceful outer-space colony. In the last days of Earth, a genetically engineered assassin species known as ‘The Paratwa’ (two bodies telepathically linked to share the same mind, and engineered to 'get off' on violence) decided they didn’t want to listen to their human masters anymore, got out of control, created their own religion, turned on their creators, and the whole damn planet had to be nuked just to deal with the buggers (might seem like a bit of an over-reaction, but trust me, The Paratwa are vicious b*stards).
Liege-Killer takes place hundreds of years after these events, while Binary Storm (written over 20 years later) acts as a prequel leading up to them. On this merit alone, the two books are great companion pieces to each other. As a prequel, it enables the reader to see a completely different perspective on the same setting. The pacing, structure, style and thematic relevance of the two books are very different too (which you might expect from them being released so far apart).
When Liege-Killer was released in the mid to late 80s, the sci-fi scene was being pulled in two different directions: the then-emerging ‘cyber-punk’ movement, with novels like Neuromancer and a new wave of authors inspired by the experimental works of J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs and Philip.K.Dick; and ‘adventure sci-fi’ with the popularity of Star Wars (ironically enough, harking back to the beloved serials of decades gone by. Sound familiar?)
To me, Liege-Killer embodies both styles. There’s plenty of ‘cat and mouse’ chase scenes and high energy action (the Paratwa use this kind of ‘lightsaber-whip’ thing called a Cohe-Wand, which makes for some pretty epic ‘duel’ scenes any action/adventure fan should lap up). There are also some pretty subversive and bizarre concepts: two people who are, in fact, one person; an idyllic utopian society turned on its head by a lone deviant; a creature whose perversions and sadistic tendencies are completely sickening to humankind, the species that created it; as well as a host of other mind-bending and terrifying conspiracies assembling in the background that would make future-Alex Jones soil his cyber-pants at the sheer ‘Orwellian/Cronenbergian-horror’ of it all. By covering its bases in such a way, the story lends itself to two completely different schools of sci-fi entertainment while, in my opinion, satisfying both.
For such a long novel, Liege-Killer is very fast paced. Hinz does a good job at cycling between character development and plot intrigue to inform the action, and then using the consequences of that action to reveal more about the characters and plot. As a result, its 500+ pages are very easy to get through.
With its predecessor book reflecting the popular science fiction of its time, does Binary Storm stand on its own, or harken back to the formula of its first entry?
I was actually very impressed by how Binary Storm managed to carve its own identity apart from the original. Binary Storm opts for much slower pacing and takes its time with a story that unfolds over a number of years. Maybe Hinz was able to take this risk in the handling of a relatively unknown series, but he also managed to really hit a chord with me by taking the setting of his first book, updating it, and making the path towards Liege-Killer’s (literally) alien setting seem utterly relevant.
The same consistently drawn characters of the first book are taken from the peaceful utopia setting of Liege-Killer, and literally dropped back to Earth. Binary Storm’s future Earth shows: a world where the acts of nihilistic suicide cults have become part of everyday life; New Years Eve parties that happen under the falling ashes of environmental cataclysms; and class warfare that is so rampant and splintered that it’s almost presented as a cathartic, cultural joke. The Earth of Binary Storm is a world overloaded with problems, big and small, to the extent that the inhabitants have no real choice but to passively sit back, reminisce and just hope that things get better.
This could very easily become preachy ‘edgelord’ bullsh*t, but it actually becomes the book’s greatest strength. You see, if you’ve read Liege-Killer, you know that things eventually DO get better for the human race (ironically enough, in a setting conceived in the 1980s). Sure, it comes at the expense of Earth, the creation of a predator species for humankind, and a future world that is so bizarre that it could only be imagined in a sci-fi novel, but humanity DOES go on to thrive among the stars.
Ultimately, that’s what Binary Storm is all about. It’s a sci-fi novel that says: ‘If you can squint through the falling ashes and settling smoke, a bold age for humanity is just around the corner’’.
Ok ok, so it might sound like I’m throwing this around as ‘high brow literature’ that should be ‘the-voice-of-a-generation’ or something. In actual fact, it’s certainly not a book for everyone. It’s an unashamed work of pulp fiction that doesn’t strive to be anything else. And of course, how can I honestly say I would have found such personal enjoyment in Binary Storm if I wasn’t already familiar with the ‘The Paratwa’ series? Despite this, I really appreciate the effort displayed by Christopher Hinz with this book, and how it stands alone as a contemporary story.
Maybe it's true that the best sci-fi has been and gone, but after reading Binary Storm, I feel there’s at least some hope for exciting things to come.
(So that’s my rambling over. Below are my personal ratings for some of the books mentioned in this piece, not all of which I’m massive fans of, but all of which are worth reading in their own way).
Binary Storm - (Author: Christopher Hinz) 4/5
Liege-Killer - (Author: Christopher Hinz) 5/5
Ready Player One - (Author: Ernest Cline) 2/5
Neuromancer - (Author: William Gibson) 3.5/5
The Boat of A Million Years - (Author: Poul Anderson) 5/5