As a confessed life-long gamer and hater of huge corporations, you’d think writer Nicole Kornher-Stance would be eager to mine these territories in her stories. But as she confesses in the following email interview about her dystopian sci-fi novel Firebreak (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), which does both, she admits that it actually made her more nervous than excited.
To begin, what is Firebreak about, and when and where does it take place?
Firebreak takes place in the city of New Liberty in the northeastern United States in the year 2134, after much of the U.S. coastline has been lost to rising sea levels and the remaining states have been equally divided between two megacorporations. Imagine the Buy-n-Large company from Wall-E, except two of them, and, after buying up all the other companies, they’re the only ones left, and neither one is buying and neither one is selling. So they fight it out instead.
New Liberty, where Mal lives, is a city in the grips of corporate civil war, and most of its customer-citizens have no stable living to fall back on except for what the gig economy allows them to scrape together. As such, Mal lives with eight other corporate war refugees in a repurposed hotel room, doing various side hustles and barter to pay for her necessities. One of her income sources comes from streaming BestLife, a massively popular VR game. She plays the most popular game module, a wargame designed to be a faithful reproduction of the actual war in which her city has been embroiled for decades. The game, along with its extensive merchandising campaign, and the fact that gamers can earn tiny bits of money and water credit by playing it, does more than media coverage ever could to drum up enthusiasm and customer-citizen support for the war that ruined the lives of the people playing it in the first place.
Mal streams BestLife with her gaming partner Jessa, and this has been their way of life for the four years since the housing lottery landed them in the same hotel room together. And then, at last they get an audience sponsor who gives them each twenty-five gallons in their water accounts (more than has ever been in both of their accounts combined before) with the promise of a weekly water salary if they’ll just devote part of their stream to this one small task. What Mal and Jessa don’t realize is that this mysterious sponsor request will lead them to uncover a whole lot more about the game, the war, and the corporations fighting it than is good for them — and that while they might be pretty okay at fighting their way out of trouble in-game, there aren’t any real-life power-ups or heal syringes or respawn points to save them now.
Where did you get the idea for Firebreak and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
Oh wow. I don’t even remember. Before even attempting to draft this one, I spent three years kicking it around in my head telling myself I wasn’t good enough to do the idea justice and almost definitely never would be. I have a lifelong gaming background, and a seemingly-lifelong hatred of huge corporations and how their profit margins are prioritized (by the corporations themselves but also by the government) over human rights and the health of the planet. Both of those things kind of twined together to make a book and accrued a bunch of other stuff along the way: my love / hate relationship with the gig economy, my fascination with Black Mirror-esque future tech, my frustration with the limits of activism in a country that touts its love of freedom while being very selective as to whom those freedoms are accorded. Many, many, many 2020 news stories were sent to me by early readers with notes like “hey look! it’s your book!” because the thing about dystopias is that they’re not far-fetched at all.
I always knew, though, that if I was really going to write this one-lone-nobody-against-a-corrupt-system book, I didn’t want it to be the kind of unrealistic story where all the problems that cleared the ground for this corrupt system to take root just magically go away because the protagonist said “hey, this isn’t right.” Nor did I want it to be relentlessly bleak. A few books in, my niche seems to be grim, yet hopeful. And this is no exception. There were some tough choices I had to make as I approached the ending, and the hardest one was the one that was the most foregone conclusion, for several equally spoilery reasons. You’ll know it when you see it. Apologies in advance.
I drafted Firebreak in about 5 weeks after refusing to let myself touch it for 3 years. Everything in that first draft is actually still there, apart from the ending, which got changed because it was “very dark.” And my amazing editor, Navah Wolfe, instead of asking me to chop out twenty thousand words, as I’ve seen so many other authors get asked to do by their editors, asked me to put that many more in. I’d drafted it in a panicky haze that got thicker as the manuscript neared 100,000 words and then surpassed it, so being let off-leash to really go wild was just a lot of fun.
It sounds like Firebreak is a dystopian sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it?
It is absolutely that! I’ve also seen it called a “cyberpunk techno-thriller,” which sounds terribly fancy. It gets compared to Ready Player One a lot for obvious reasons, but beyond the initial emphasis on in-game action, the scope widens considerably and becomes far more Black Mirror-y than anything, I think. It’s a novel about a gamer, but a novel about a gamer as written by a person who’s a big, big fan of when a story starts out looking like one thing and then goes totally sideways as soon as you think you know what you’ve gotten yourself into. It is more of a dystopia than R.P.O., but, as with all my dystopias, I try not to let it devolve totally into grimdarklandia. The point of dystopias for me is course correction. We’re up to the eyeballs in one already. But we can try to keep it from getting worse.
Now, Firebreak is not your first novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Firebreak but not on anything else you’ve written?
Mostly nonfiction, actually. So much so that I included a little bibliography / reading list in the acknowledgments. Naomi Klein’s No Logo and Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism were books I’d read years ago but they absolutely influenced the concepts in Firebreak. Books I deliberately hunted down for research once I knew what I was getting myself into included Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, And Profit by Vandana Shiva; Mind Wars: Brain Science And The Military In The 21st Century by Jonathan D. Moreno; The Future Of Violence by Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum; and LikeWar: The Weaponization Of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking.
I also made sure to reread Ready Player One in advance of writing Firebreak, just to make sure I wasn’t stepping on too many toes, but luckily the direction I was planning to take the VR game concept turned out to be totally different from R.P.O. Whew. (I did the same thing with my book Archivist Wasp, actually, while drafting it. I’d described some of the worldbuilding to a friend, who gave me a worried look and told me to go read The Hunger Games, which at the time I had not yet heard of, because I live under a rock. But I read it, and was likewise extremely relieved to see the similarities were superficial at best, and more in keeping with Battle Royale than Hunger Games anyway. Which did not stop some readers from taking time out of their day to inform me that they stopped reading my “Hunger Games ripoff” after the first page, because of course it didn’t.)
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games; was Firebreak influenced by those things? You said you’re a big gamer…
People always look at me funny when I say this, but my writing has always been much more influenced by movies, TV, comics, and games than books. Maybe because my process is very visual (I see the scene, I transcribe the scene, the end), and my books are packed with action scenes, which play out in my head cinematically with choreography and full sensory detail, and I have to figure out how to translate them into something that hopefully functions in text.
There’s no one specific influence or handful of influences I can point to for this one, really (unlike, say, with my YA debutArchivist Wasp, where I could very easily answer “you see, I was reading The Golden Bough at the same time I was playingFallout 3 and then all of a sudden there was a book”) but my gaming background and undying love of the Big Dumb Action Movie really show themselves here. It shares a lot of themes with recent TV shows like Black Mirror, Westworld, and The Boys, but I can’t even really point to those in good conscience as the book was fully drafted by the time I started watching them.
One big research influence was documentaries about corporate water privatization. I highly recommend you watch Flow: For The Love Of Water, Tapped, and Blue Gold: World Water Wars. And prepare to get really, really angry about bottled water.
Dystopian sci-fi stories are sometimes stand-alone stories, and sometimes part of larger sagas. What is Firebreak?
It’s a stand-alone. I had one publisher ask me to split it into a duology and extend the story, but as much as I’d have loved to write more about Mal and Jessa and the rest of the cast, Firebreak ends exactly where I always wanted it to end, and stretching out the story would have changed it into something I never wanted it to be.
That said, there are probably a few people reading this and laughing because it wouldn’t be the first stand-alone I wrote that then decided it wouldn’t leave me alone until I gave it more books. Archivist Wasp was an intended stand-alone, but then pretty much as soon as I turned it in I knew I wanted to do more in that story. The sequel, Latchkey, while not published until three years after A.W. came out, was drafted when A.W. was still in production. And the third and final book is a work-in-progress on my Patreon. So they are laughing at me with good and excellent reasons which I entirely deserve. But Firebreak is 100% a standalone.
That said. Another thing I’m a big, big fan of is when a piece of media includes Easter eggs for longtime readers / viewers / players. So if you’re such a reader of mine, I hope you find some to your liking here.
Now, along with Firebreak, you also have a middle-grade sci-fi adventure novel coming out July 20th called Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet. What is that book about?
That one’s about Jillian, an 11-year old with anxiety. Her parents are materials acquisitions surveyors for a space program whose portal-based space travel allows them to quickly hop to exoplanets for the retrieval of special algae, a key raw material for green tech initiatives on Earth. And today it’s Take Your Kid to Work Day, and Jillian gets to go to spaaaaace.
But things very quickly go sideways and she’s stuck on the exoplanet 80 UMa c, orbiting a binary star system seen from Earth as part of the constellation Ursa Major. She’s utterly on her own except for the space probe / multitool nanobot swarm that arrived with her pod: the Semi-Autonomous Bio-Reconnoitering Intelligent Nanobot Array, or SABRINA. I pitched it as Hatchet in space, and my agent thought it was more The Martian for kids, which is a smarter comp. Not least because whenever I say Hatchet I then have to specify “the survival novel by Gary Paulsen, not the horror movie about the axe murderer.” Though there are horror elements. And I’m told it’s “funny and quirky.” I did mention the “too many genres” thing. It’s a feature, not a bug.
You have a kid of your own. Did you write Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet as a way of regaining your status with your kid? Is this book really just a cry for help? You can tell me, I am a professional.
Hey now. Keep your voice down. He’s got really good hearing.
Seriously, after never planning to have a kid at all, I really lucked out with the one I ended up with. He’s 13 now (he was 11 when I wrote Jillian, which is why the protagonist is also 11 and has a name that’s suspiciously similar to his) and still has not received the memo that he’s supposed to avoid his family like plague at this age. (Does the phrase “avoid like plague” even work anymore? I feel like as a society we’ve revealed ourselves to skew more toward “run headlong into plague,” “loudly insist the plague is a hoax,” “ridicule people for trying not to catch plague,” etc.) We play board and video games together, read together, take hikes and bike rides together, etc., and he’s a frequent initiator of all those activities. At his age I would have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into even the barest suggestion of hanging out with my parents, so his attitude, while totally unexpected, is not unpleasant.
I did, however, write it with him in mind. My mom has been on me for years to write a kids’ book. Before I even had a kid of my own, if I recall. I was never sure what this was based on, as before my YA and adult books find publishing homes they usually get rejected a lot for being “too dark” and “too weird” and “too many genres,” none of which really scream kids’ bookat me. So I was skeptical. But I had a lot of loose ideas kicking around waiting to get shoved into a story somewhere — portal-based space travel! green tech! mind-control parasites! a character who’s a sentient nanobot swarm! etc. — and they kind of coalesced when I realized I really would like to write a book that depicts anxiety (especially anxiety in children) as something beyond shyness, because it really is so so much more than that. My kid has severe anxiety and zero shyness, but I’ve literally never seen true anxiety symptoms depicted in a kids’ book and I thought it might be helpful for kids and parents who, like me, had this idea from media that shyness and anxiety go hand-in-hand, and that is a grossly misleading depiction that I can easily see leading to misdiagnoses, late diagnoses, etc. And my response to “I want to see this in a book and can’t find it” was, as it always is, to write it myself. So I did.
Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet has illustrations by Scott Brown. Did you ever consider adding illustrations to Firebreak?
It honestly never occurred to me. I didn’t even know I was getting the Jillian illustrations until after they were done. Talk about cool surprises. Honestly, the concept of illustrating any of my books blows my mind because, first of all, visual artists are wizards of the highest order, and I am in awe of them; and second, I get asked a lot why I don’t include physical descriptions of characters, like I am a person with an intelligent reason for not having done so, and the big secret answer is:because I have absolutely no freaking idea what they look like. In my head my characters are all walking bundles of body language and mannerisms and line delivery and microexpressions and general awkwardness, so the idea of putting, like, faces and bodies on them is a skill beyond my ability.
As for Firebreak, we talked earlier about the movies and TV shows that influenced it. To flip things around, has there been any interest in turning Firebreak into a movie, show, or game?
I mean, I’d be interested, but I don’t have anything to report. I always love seeing how other people interpret my stuff, especially, as mentioned, as my almost-total lack of physical descriptions doesn’t exactly make it easy on them! But since my process always starts with the movie in my head, it’d be really neat to see it get translated back into the visuals it started from. Plus, as a very helpful acquaintance once told me, I should “really consider having my books made into movies. Movies are where the money’s at.”
Do you have a preference as to what form it should take?
I’d love to see it as a movie or TV show, but I have literally no idea who I’d cast, so I am useless here. That said I’d love to know what others think, so if you’re reading this and you’ve read Firebreak already, who would you cast in the movie?
Finally, if someone enjoys Firebreak, what dystopian sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
I think most of Cory Doctorow’s stuff hits a lot of the same political notes, only harder, so if you like Firebreak for the activism angle and the little-guy-against-the-megacorporation plot, give his stuff a read for sure.