Book Review: 36 Streets by T.R. Napper
Today I’ll be reviewing the 2022 cyberpunk book 36 Streets by T.R. Napper.
DISCLAIMER: In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this book and I are both part of the same writer’s guild, and I attended his book launch for 36 Streets last year.
The author, T.R. Napper is an Australian man who’s had an interesting career prior to becoming an author: he was a diplomat and aid worker who delivered humanitarian programs in Southeast Asia, East Asia and Mongolia. But specifically relevant to this book, which is set in Vietnam, he lived in Hanoi for three years. He’s won several awards, has had his works published in science fiction and speculative fiction magazines and received a creative writing doctorate with the thesis: Noir, Cyberpunk and Asian Modernity, all themes explored in this book. If you’d like to know more, his website is http://nappertime.com/ .
36 Streets is the debut novel of T.R. Napper. The book is an adult cyberpunk novel set in a dystopian future where Vietnam, or the north of it at least, has fallen under Chinese military rule. The eponymous 36 Streets is another name for the Old Quarter of Hanoi, where the Chinese authorities generally stay out and allow a Vietnamese crime gang to maintain order. The story deals heavily with the concept of memory, and the reliability or otherwise of it, in a world with ubiquitous neutral interfaces and hyperrealistic virtual reality.
The protagonist is Lin Thi Vun, a young woman who was born in Vietnam but grew up in Australia. Even though she speaks the language of her country of birth, her English is more natural and she doesn’t trust her own Vietnamese language expertise and hasn’t mastered a local accent. She feels self-conscious and like an outsider: she never felt truly Australian, but she doesn’t really feel Vietnamese either. She’s caught between worlds. Lin has worked her way up through the ranks of the criminal organisation that runs the 36 Streets, and spends her downtime getting drunk, high and picking up bar girls. She struggles with the murky morality of some of the jobs she has to do, not so much the breaking of kneecaps types of things, but like the job we see her doing in the opening chapter, of catching a member of the resistance against the Chinese occupation and handing him over to the Chinese authorities for the bounty which doesn’t sit right with her.
The main thrust of the story kicks off when Lin is tasked by her boss to act as a private investigator and meet with a wealthy foreign businessman, the Englishman Herbert Molayson, who doesn’t trust the official story of what happened to his two friends and business partners: one whose death was explained away too conveniently by the authorities for him to trust, and one who’s gone missing and who no one can find any trace of. Lin chasing down leads and pulling on this thread, like an old-school hard-drinking noir detective, is what gets her involved in a conspiracy involving the regime and mega-corporations, a conspiracy that even learning about can lead to deadly consequences.
This book was great. Especially once the main private eye mystery arc began, I was hooked. I really can’t understate how much I enjoyed the private investigation aspects of this story. I really enjoyed the pompous but shrewd Englishman Herbert Molayson who commissioned Lin to find his friend. However, I enjoyed the much rougher Hermann Hebb even more by comparison. Lin herself is an enjoyable protagonist to spend time with, although I’d be terrified to meet her in person. She’s a flawed character who pushes people away and engages in self-destructive behaviour (like smoking, getting routinely blackout drunk and her addiction to the drug ice-seven), but when threatened doesn’t back down or go down without a hell of a fight, even if she’s outgunned. One thing I particularly enjoyed was that the first act we see her take, stunning and capturing a resistance member for a bounty, she almost completely screws up. She catches him, alright, but her nerves are on-edge because of her ice-seven addiction and instead of taking him down cleanly she misfires her stun gun and has to engage in hand-to-hand combat to get the job done, getting seriously injured in the process.
Having been to Vietnam on holiday, I could almost feel and smell the air of the streets as depicted by Napper in the book. It’s probably a setting that is underexplored in English-language literature, especially in the cyberpunk genre. Other things I appreciated was that Lin, quite realistically, doesn’t even start the book carrying a firearm: she’s dangerous enough with a knife and stun gun. The technology of the world feels very feasible, like it’s just out of reach of today’s technological capabilities. The depiction of cybernetics are awesome (with a lot of information given via on-retinal display, for example). Little touches in the details show that this is a future where climate change has bitten in, with frequent mentions of vat-grown beef (as opposed to from cows on farmland), faux-wood tables and flexiscreens.
While the story overwhelmingly takes place within Vietnam, occasionally there are peeks and hints of just how dystopian the outside world has become: a mention of the “former” United States of America, Australia’s gone full xenophobia like it’s full of One Nation voters, Britain’s described as “a despotic island off the coast of Europe”, Pakistan appears to be a theocracy now, and so on. I haven’t mentioned the virtual reality game that the investigation centres around, a re-creation of the Vietnam War from the perspective of an American soldier, and where the player always loses by being brutally killed) because that’s best left to be explored in the book itself.
Pulling back from the details to a more meta perspective, the chapters were refreshingly short, which gave the book a quick pace. I never realised how much I love short chapters until I read this book. There was a flashback that the author held back until its reveal was perfectly timed in the plot. The violence is gritty and visceral, and the author is not shy about killing off named characters in the most brutal ways possible. For example, there’s an antagonist with a BROADSWORD who is so violent and effective that it’s terrifying any time he makes an appearance. The ending of the book felt very satisfying, and Lin makes a decision I didn’t expect her to at the end.
Would I recommend this book? Of course! In fact, on Reddit alone I’ve recommended the book around 20 times. Well, once I’ve posted this review everywhere, it’ll be closer to 30 or 40 times.
I recommend this book to anyone looking for any combination of the following elements:
- A cyberpunk book
- A sci-fi book
- A private eye / mystery book
- A standalone book (not part of a series)
- Book with a culturally complex and bilingual protagonist (grew up with two different cultures)
- Book written by an Australian
- Book with a female protagonist
- Book with a gay protagonist
- Book set in Vietnam
- Book set in an urban environment
- Book set in a gritty future
- Book for an adult audience
In summary, this book was a brutally visceral read and is such a shining example of the cyberpunk genre. It makes me think I need to read more cyberpunk, a genre I’d never actively sought out before, and if only because of that, I strongly recommend it.
And one final thought to leave on: As I neared the end of the book, I became painfully aware that I was going to miss Lin checking the time or reading messages via her on-retinal display when I moved onto other books. Especially given I normally read fantasy books, I knew I was really going to miss those little touches. I think that when I’m pre-emptively realising I’m going to miss an aspect of a book once I’ve finished reading it … well, that tells me I enjoyed it quite a bit. Easily one of the best books I’ve read in years.
Oh, and it has a glowing endorsement from Richard Morgan (author of Altered Carbon) on the front cover, in case that’s something you might find interesting.
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