I came across Steven Barnes’ Streetlethal the way I come across most things: by accident, while looking for something else. Rereading William Gibson’s Neuromancer (and its two sequels, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive) got me on a kick of rereading not just the rest of Gibson’s oeuvre, but other building blocks of the loosely defined cyberpunk “canon.” First on my list was one of my favorites, Bruce Sterling’ Islands in the Net, which I’ve read a few times and never tire of. I was surprised by the fact that such a foundation work of cyberpunk was so little discussed online; and that how much of what little discussion existed was dedicated to the tired old “what the author got right/wrong about the future,” as if the primary function of science fiction is to accurately divine every aspect of the future right down to the type and capacity of storage media that will be common. Among the more insightful articles about Sterling’s book, however, was one by Mark Bould. It was one of three articles, actually, in a series he wrote on “afrocyberpunk,” exploring the depiction of blacks and the countries of Africa in 1980s cyberpunk fiction.
The first article looks at Neuromancer and finds that blacks of any nationality are almost totally absent from Gibson’s future, the only representative being the dropout space Rastas the book’s hero, Case, encounters for a few pages. The second article was about Islands in the Net, a book in which several African countries figure prominently but in which black characters are still background only and Africa itself is presented as a sort of wild, untamed other. Set in contrast to the corporate hegemony that defines most of the rest of the world, this depiction of Africa isn’t necessarily negative, and there’s a complexity to it, but it still largely excludes the continent, or fetishizes it as something more primal, alive, and dangerous – the place where people still carry guns and kill other people. Bould’s point, and as much as I adore both Neuromancer and Islands in the Net I agree, is that cyberpunk is almost always set in a globalized future but this multi-cultural tomorrow often doesn’t include many black people (Gibson’s second book, Count Zero, goes a long way to changing this).
Bould’s third essay in the series looks at early cyberpunk that does include major black characters, written by black authors. And that’s how I learned about Streetlethal. Its author, Steven Barnes, is best known for his many collaborations with Larry Niven (creator of the “Ringworld” series and co-author with Jerry Pournelle of another of my all-time favorites, The Mote in God’s Eye). Streetlethal is Barnes working solo and coming up with what was described as “a pre-Neuromancer cyberpunk blaxpoitation kungfu pulp novel.” I was in on every level. And I got exactly what I’d been promised.
The central character is Aubrey Knight (because they’re always someone or other Knight), a luminary in the world of nullboxing, which is basically MMA fighting in zero gravity. Before that he was an enforcer for the Ortega crime family in Los Angeles (which has been ravaged by a massive earthquake), and the Ortegas didn’t take too kindly to the moral awakening that led to Knight walking away from the family. They frame him for murder, getting him sent to an underground (literally) prison where, among other things, the warden engages in a healthy trade in illegally harvested organs. Knight has only one thing on his mind: revenge. And he gets the chance when he escapes from prison. Only it turns out framing him for murder was the least complicated thing the Ortegas have been up to. Aubrey soon finds himself in the middle of a web that includes corporate espionage, underground scavengers, and a highly addictive new strain of psychedelic mushroom that are activated by sexual activity but pretty much destroy a person – or imbue them with nascent psychic abilities.
Streetlethal is a lean, mean little book. Action-packed, trashy, and full of street-level philosophizing about violence. What struck me most about it wasn’t the fact that all of its primary characters were black, Hispanic, or Asian; that’s notable but not the book’s sole defining characteristic. What struck me most was how much of what became cyberpunk trope is present in this book, published in 1983 (Neuromancer came out in 1984). There are no hackers (though there is some hacking), no “net,” and the corporate overlords that would become so prevalent are here crime lords. But other than that, Streetlethal has, among other things: the dystopic, sprawling urban landscape; genetic engineering; the ancient crime/corporate boss kept alive through artificial means; scavengers who eke out a new way of living in the urban rubble of the future; a femme fatale type with flashy body modifications; and the general noirish air of what would soon become cyberpunk’s signature setting – and continue to be so, well into the 21st century when books like Altered Carbon picked up the ball and ran with it.
Barnes’ post-quake LA of the near future is fleshed out without going overboard on minutiae, believable and inhabited by people who seem reasonably realistic within the context of the setting. His prose doesn’t have the grim poetry of Gibson, and his story doesn’t have the global reach of Islands in the Net, but Streetlethal is a “founding father” of cyberpunk even if it’s rarely mentioned as such. It’s also a direct link between cyberpunk and the espionage/adventure potboilers of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a bit like dropping “Black Samurai” Robert Sand or Mack Bolan or “The Destroyer” Remo Williams into a cyberpunk future – more Richard Morgan (Altered Carbon) than William Gibson, even though Gibson was Barnes’ contemporary. Aubrey Knight isn’t a particularly smart character, though he’s no idiot (in post-quake LA, formal education and literacy are luxuries). Barnes’ spends a lot of time describing Knight’s physicality – the size of his muscles, the quickness of his kicks and punches (Barnes himself is an avid martial artist, and it shows in his attention to detail during fights and training) – but never puts Knight forward as some sort of mega-competent, infallible superman. The fact that Knight is in many ways a “fish out of water,” struggling to figure out what the hell is going on, makes him a relatable character. He’s damn good in a fight, but in many other regards, he’s out of his league, stumbling his way awkwardly through situations for which he’s not prepared and in which he doesn’t always succeed.
Streetlethal‘s one notable weakness is its female lead, the typical “drug addict turned elegant prostitute turned crusader” who, unfortunately, never becomes much more than a sidekick to be occasionally berated, occasionally saved, and occasionally romanced by Aubrey Knight. Knight, like most of the characters in the book, is a pretty stock type, but you can do a lot with stock character types. Barnes doesn’t do that with Promise, even though she has a back story that lends itself to exploration. The other weakness comes in the resolution, during which characters seem to simultaneously decide that these weird mushrooms are far too destructive to save and must absolutely be saved. But that’s small potatoes (or mushrooms) in a story that is otherwise a hell of a fun ride. And while it might handle Promise with disappointing shallowness, in many other ways Streetlethal is progressive in ways much science fiction in the 1980s (and still) fails to be. Most specifically, when Knight encounters a couple of homosexual characters, his attitude is basically, “Hey man, it’s modern times. You cats seem to love each other, so who has a problem with that?”
Race is an issue in Streetlethal only in that 1980s cyberpunk featuring black characters and written by a black author is such a rarity. In and of itself, that’s worth noting; but within the book’s story, the race of each character hardly matters. Knight isn’t a victim of racism, nor is Promise.They just are what they are, and race is not an issue. In a nice flipping of the table, though, there are almost no Caucasian characters other than background heavies during the prison chapters and as supporting firepower in the finale. Hell, whether conscious of it or not, Barnes even subverts the “magical Negro” stereotype by having Knight tutored in meditation and “finding his inner balance” by a quasi-mystical white guy who dies so that Knight may live to save the day. If there is a commentary on race in the book, it’s implied rather than stated: the dearth of Caucasians is likely because many of them were able to flee the wreckage of the quake, leaving the people too poor to escape – mostly minorities – to pick over and fight for the remains. In this regard, Streetlethal contains a thread explored explicitly in the post-collapse Toronto of Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring.
if there’s one other element of race that makes itself known in the book – or rather, around the book – it’s the cover. There are a few different covers for Streetlethal. One features a pretty reasonable likeness of Knight and Promise. Another features what looks like maybe…I don’t know. A friend suggested Gil Gerard tinted slightly so that his skin resembles nothing so much as Arby’s roast beef. Whether this was a purposeful deception to play down the fact that the characters in the book were black (the marketing assumption being that black readers will buy books with black or white protagonists, but white readers will not buy books with black protagonists) or simply a case of a cover illustrator not having enough info and not even thinking that the characters would be anything but white (albeit a tan sort of white), I don’t know. The end result though is a white guy that someone must have pointed out is supposed to be black, so they kind of color him in half-heartedly. That cover also proclaims Aubrey Knight to be “a road warrior int he LA of the future,” which is a funny grab at Road Warrior popularity given that the one time Knight drives in the book, he kind of sucks at it.
Steven Barnes went onto a pretty solid career which included a lot of work on franchise series (including Star Wars novels and various television series) and his many collaborations with Larry Niven. There might have been a time when Streetlethal (and its sequels, Gorgon Child and Firedance) were rightly regarded as fundamental pieces of cyberpunk canon, but if so, record of such has, like so many things, been lost in the jumble. It shouldn’t be so. It might not be Neuromancer or Islands in the Net, but Streetlethal deserves it spot at the table and remains, even decades later, eminently readable and highly entertaining; the place where 1960s pulp, 1970s exploitation, and 1980s cyberpunk all come together and occasionally have freaky mushroom powered orgies.