36 Streets – TR Napper

36 Streets by T.R. Napper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

TR Napper paints a vivid picture of a cyberpunk future Vietnam in 36 Streets.

In TR Napper’s 36 Streets, part of Vietnam is again under occupation, this time by the Chinese military, but a protracted battle still rages in the south of the country, proving once again that the Vietnamese are difficult if not impossible to conquer. The 36 Streets in question is a ‘neutral area’ in downtown Han Noi ruled over by several street gangs. The Chinese government leave their operations relatively unmolested because it serves their purpose to do so.

Lin Thi Vu is a young Vietnamese woman raised – along with her twin sister Phuong – in Australia by her adoptive mother, Kylie, who took both girls in as orphaned refugees and eventually resettled with them in Vietnam because Australia’s immigration regime is even worse in the future than it is now.

Lin resents her Australian upbringing because it means she doesn’t sound like a local. That’s part of the reason she’s driven herself hard to become number 2 in the Binh Xuyen street gang. Gang leader Bao Nguyen took a shine to her when they met and subjected her to a brutal training regime (shown in a series of flashbacks) involving bloody fights with a Japanese martial arts master.

All of this is to say you don’t want to fuck with Lin. She’s hard drinking, hard fighting and takes zero shit from anyone. The fact the book has a benedictive cover quote from Cyberpunk Grand Master Richard Morgan tells you just what sort of person Lin is. She’s not well-suited to the next job her boss gives her – to play private detective for a well-paying British games simulation entrepreneur who thinks his business partner has been murdered.

And so we find ourselves well and truly in the cyberpunk/ neo-noir wheelhouse with Lin pounding rain-soaked neon-lit streets looking for clues. Napper does a tremendous job in bringing the sights, sounds and smells of future Han Noi to us. And in his hands, the city becomes a character you’ll know just as well as Lin.

But 36 Streets is also a meditation on memory, and much of that revolves around technology that allows everyone to record, edit and potentially erase their memories thanks to ubiquitous cochlear-glyph implants. The implants have a lot of other uses, completely replacing today’s mobile phones, allowing ‘heads-up’ in-retina displays and containing data ‘pin drives’ that can be easily extracted or swapped. Sure, the technology is very handy – just like your mobile phone is handy – but it’s a gateway to some very scary stuff that Napper explores and extrapolates to the max. What would it be like to have your memories edited, or to lose whole days or years, or to have the memories of someone else implanted instead? I loved this aspect of the book and how it ties in with Lin’s own feelings about her personal history, and how memory can make you strong, but it can also make you weak.

Away from the 36 Streets, Lin has another life – kept entirely separate from her gang persona – with a sister she loves and is annoyed by and a mother she insists on giving a hard time to. While these relationships add another important facet to our understanding of Lin, the scenes of family life felt a little flat compared to the hyper-realism of the gang world. Maybe that was the aim, but if so they needed to feel more real than they do in order to stand up against the book’s other settings.

But that’s a minor quibble in what is a substantial piece of science fiction writing. As you might imagine, Lin’s detective case goes south very quickly, and she finds herself in a world of pain that only she can get herself out of. She pays a heavy toll – and so do those around her – and the book’s conclusion combines everything that has gone before in a hugely satisfying climax that is at once grand and cinematic in its execution but also intensely personal and – truth be told – heartbreaking.

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