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36 STREETS by T. R. Napper (BOOK REVIEW)

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“Not the soldiers. Those – those are the same as soldiers anywhere. The Chinese invaders return to their homes from the battlefield here, broken. Their bodies can be fixed, easily enough, but minds need more precision. The best Omissioners in China working as the sun comes up, after it goes down, day after day, on those soldiers. Wiping memories, taking away the worst things they have seen. And done. Then they are ready again, to go back to central Vietnam. To the gene-scrambled crops and the heat that melts the lungs, the wet heat that never lets up, makes the skin leprous. Back to the pyres of burning dead on a long brown horizon. To the starving children, with their hollow eyes and jutting bones. To a land haunted by ghosts of the aggrieved dead. Send them back to cycle through the horror, unburdened by pasts, no longer laden with regret and fear and weakness. Then recycle them again, when the past returns.”

T. R. Napper’s debut short story collection Neon Leviathan (2020) established him as an exciting new voice in cyberpunk. His debut novel 36 Streets (2022) delivers on the promise of those short stories and then some. In Neon Leviathan Napper displayed a talent for taking Philip K. Dick and William Gibson’s explorations of virtual reality and cybernetic augmentation, the neon-drenched visuals of Blade Runner (1982) and the balletic kung-fu of The Matrix (1999), and using them to explore ideas around colonialisation, memory and national identity. Napper understands that best cyberpunk does more than just provide arresting visuals and cool ideas; it uses these to explore deeper concerns. He does this with aplomb in 36 Streets, a stylish noir SF thriller with cool characters and plenty of action that thought-provokingly explores Vietnam’s history as a colonised country and has plenty to say about war, memory and the wages of violence. Napper’s novel hits that sweet spot that genre fiction does at its best – it’s fun and exciting, but also full of intelligent ideas. 36 Streets triumphantly cements him as one of the most exciting voices in SF.

36-streets-t-r-napper.jpg?resize=197%2C3Lin Thi Vu is a Vietnamese orphan who grew up with her twin sister and her Australian foster mother, but now she is a gangster on the streets of Hanoi, a member of the Bình Xuyên who has been specially trained by ruthless crime boss Bao Nguyen. She lives a life of drugs, alcohol and violence on the 36 Streets, the beating heart of Chinese-occupied Hanoi. Her life changes when Bao hires her out as a private investigator to Herbert Molayson, an Englishman who wants to track down the murderer of his friend Raymond Chang. Herbert and Raymond, alongside the mysterious Hermann Hebb, were the developers behind the illegal and highly addictive immersive simulation game Fat Victory, which makes its users experience the US-Vietnam war from the perspective of the doomed US soldiers. The case proves more complicated than it at first appears, and soon Lin is involved in a life-or-death struggle with rival gangs and the Chinese military, one which will force her to make difficult and unpleasant choices.

The technology at the heart of Neon Leviathan’s interlinked stories was the Kandel-Yu, a machine that can erase memories and implant false ones into the human mind. We are the sum of the events that have happened to us and how we have changed and grown as a result of them; if these memories can be altered, how can we be sure of who we are? In Neon Leviathan, Napper used the Kandel-Yu to explore existential questions about memory, identity and the self. The same device and technology is present behind the scenes in 36 Streets, and this time Napper uses this quintessentially cyberpunk piece of technology to explore larger ideas around cultural memory and national identity. Fat Victory is more than just a game, it’s a weapon of war designed to dehumanise the Vietnamese in their own minds, so that they will more readily accept Chinese occupation of their country. Just as altering a person’s memories alters their identity, so a huge part of colonisation and occupation involves the erasure and overwriting of the indigenous culture, whether through propaganda and rewriting history or by violence and genocide. Napper uses the cyberpunk motif of the machine that can rewrite memories to explore this idea. Balancing out the Chinese government’s fondness for rewriting history through censorship and misinformation is Vietnam’s desire, as a country that has seen horrific war after horrific war and numerous occupations come and go, to forget, so that it can move past its trauma. As Bao says to Lin,

“So on the one hand we have Vietnam, expert in suppressing trauma and feeling, and on the other we have our invaders, China, the artisans of amnesia. Whole swaths of their history rewritten to suit the politics of the present day. Forgetting parts of their history undesirable, remembering anew historical precedents that never happened. Two countries, in symbiosis, forgetting and remembering immanent to the identity of each.”

This push and pull is linked through the game of Fat Victory, and the collective of Ommissioners, programmers and writers who designed and distributed it, all trying to manipulate Vietnam’s self-image and consciousness, the better to keep its people oppressed and compliant.

But 36 Streets is more than just a complex and intelligent political thriller. The balance between trauma and memory, between the need to forget past traumas versus the need to remember who you are, is played out personally in Lin. An outsider in Australia due to her Vietnamese heritage and an outsider in Vietnam due to her adopted Australian background, Lin is constantly faced with the pain and alienation caused by her identity. This is further complicated by being a gangster – as much as part of her still loves her twin sister Phuong and her adoptive mother Kylie, as a gangster they are simply a source of weakness for her enemies to exploit. But again, to what extent are the traumatic memories as much as the good ones a key part of who we are? Lin herself warns Herbert about the dangers of becoming obsessed with expunging unpleasant details from one’s own memory:

“Thing is, those little details are the threads of the spider web of your life. You don’t want to pull on too many of those, mate. Whole thing falls apart.”

Ultimately, Lin also must choose whether or not to hold on to the pain that makes her human, or cut herself loose from it in order to make herself a more powerful fighting machine. The novel is as much about Lin’s wrestling with her identity as Vietnam’s complicated identity as a frequently colonised nation. 

As well as being full of intelligent ideas and great character work, 36 Streets is also a ludicrously exciting action-adventure story. Napper has a deft touch with an action scene, writing fight sequences with panache and fluidity. The story whips by at a brisk pace, moving us from more reflective character moments to action set-pieces that would work beautifully on screen. The end result is a delirious rollercoaster ride of a novel, but one that will engage the reader’s heart and brain as much as their adrenaline. Napper has created an instant classic of the cyberpunk genre, and shown just how vital and incisive the genre can be.   

36 Streets is available now from Titan Books.

WaterstonesAmazon.co.ukAmazon.comTitan Books


All quotes used are taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication



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