Ain’t No Place For A Street Fighting Man: Streetlethal by Steven Barnes
Steven Barnes is far from obscure. He has written novels in the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Assassin’s Creed universes. He has collaborated with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle on two different series of books. He has written for film and television. While not, perhaps, a household name, he has a solid career in the business.
So I am rather at a loss as to why his first solo novel, Streetlethal, has been allowed to go out of print. Originally published in 1983 (although Amazon, for reasons of their own, lists the publication date as 1955, when Barnes was three years old) this is fast paced, realistic, cyberpunk/noir action novel.
I’m not sure if there is an issue with the rights (the first edition was released by Ace, the second in 1994 by Tor) or if the current rights holder just doesn’t see any interest in the book. I think that it is worth re-releasing, and maybe this time with a decent cover? The artwork on the first one is good quality, but I assume the artist was given minimal information and assumed that a martial artist had to be wiry and vaguely Asian, when the main character of Streetlethal looks like John Henry. The Tor edition at least has the race and build right, but the art is pretty lame.
Aubry Knight is a former null fighting champion—a kind of mixed martial art in zero-g, with matches held in near Earth orbit habitats—turned enforcer for a crime syndicate. When he decides to get out of the syndicate, his bosses throw him a nice farewell party and give him a gold watch.
Ha, ha, just kidding.
Nobody quits the Mob—not even if you used to be the biggest thing on Pay-Per-View. In the first of many action sequences (Steven Barnes is himself an expert in several martial arts and the fighting scenes are written clearly and fluidly, although a couple of them run a bit long, in my opinion) Aubry is ambushed by an assassin, whom he disarms and kills with his bare hands. The syndicate has a backup plan, however, and the incident is caught on video. Aubry is railroaded into prison.
Not just any prison—this is the Death. A supermax facility built far underground in old mine tunnels under Death Valley. Naturally it is escape-proof, but a man like Aubry Knight won’t let that keep him from his unfinished business.
What follows is a sci fi crime thriller that is deeper and more philosophical than a bare bones outline would suggest. The pace and tone of the novel change quite a bit in the second half, not for the worse, I think, but it takes a bit of shifting mental gears from the frenetic action that we see in the opening.
Aubry’s world is detailed and realistic. Much of the story takes place in a Los Angeles that is struggling to recover from a cataclysmic earthquake. There is none of the usual post-apocalyptic/dystopian cannibalistic despair, however, the inhabitants are just ordinary folk, trying to rebuild with the scant tools that they have available.
One character in particular deserves special mention, and may provide a clue for why the book is out of print. The female romantic lead is named Promise, and she is an exile from a lesbian separatist commune—exiled for the crime of heterosexuality. Barnes handles the character and her backstory deftly, eschewing polemic and focusing on one person’s difficult choices and their consequences. However, the implication that homosexuals can be intolerant and unforgiving of heterosexual liaisons within their community (something that this reviewer has experienced firsthand) may not sit well with the management at Tor, if that’s who still holds the rights.
All in all, this novel shows many earmarks of a novelist’s first published work—as I say, the pacing is uneven, and some of the fight sequences may grow dull for readers who are not themselves combat athletes—but it is a very good one. Used copies are available, and you might be able to find it at your local library. It combines solid speculation with solid action, and isn’t that what science fiction is all about?
Misha Burnett is the author of Catskinner’s Book, Cannibal Hearts, The Worms Of Heaven, and Gingerbread Wolves, modern fantasy novels collectively known as The Book Of Lost Doors.