Review: “Barb Wire” By Neal Barratt Jr. (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a film novelisation that I’ve been meaning to read for at least a decade and a half. I am, of course, talking about Neal Barratt Jr’s 1996 novelisation of “Barb Wire”.

If I remember rightly, I first learnt that there was a novelisation of this film when, during my teenage years, I happened to see a copy of it (along with the novelisation of “Eraser”) in either a HMV, MVC or Fopp store (anyone remember those?). Although I’d seen the film on late-night TV a year or two earlier, the idea of a “Barb Wire” novel just seemed hilariously awesome, so I ended up buying a copy.

Then, I forgot about it. However, after chancing upon a fan-made trailer/ music video for the film on Youtube, I thought “I should watch this film again for a laugh“. But, since I’m not really going through a film-watching phase at the moment, I remembered the novelisation. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it anywhere and, at a guess, I must have sent it to the charity shop during a clear-out I had in late 2017. Luckily, after a bit of searching, I was able to find a cheap second-hand copy online. So, this book review has been a long time in the making.

So, let’s take a look at “Barb Wire”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1996 Boxtree (UK) paperback edition of “Barb Wire” that I read.

The novel is set in the dsytopian future of 2032. After a military coup led by far-right elements in the US Congress, America is in the middle of a second civil war. Well, except for the city of Steel Harbor, a UN-administered demilitarised zone that is filled with low-lives, gangsters and crooks. It is also home to the Hammerhead Bar & Grill, a late-night establishment run by an ex-soldier called Barb Wire.

The novel begins with Barb Wire blowing up a generator facility using both motorbike-mounted missiles and grenades. Then, we see a senior officer in the Congressional Directorate – Colonel Victor Pryzer – cruelly torturing a resistance member for information about a fugitive scientist called Dr. Cora Devonshire and the whereabouts of a very expensive pair of contact lenses.

Whilst Cora and a man called Axel Hood try to sneak into Steel Harbour, Barb finds that she is running low on cash. So, she decides to spend the evening doing a spot of bounty hunting. The fugitive is called W.R. Krebs. One spectacular gunfight later, Barb hands Krebs over to a dodgy bail bondsman called Rhino. However, she later gets a visit from the local chief of police who is looking for Krebs. To Barb’s surprise, the chief tells her that Krebs was a member of the resistance….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was better than I’d expected 🙂 Although the early parts didn’t really wow me, it turned into a much more atmospheric, compelling and thrilling novel than I’d expected. In fact, it was actually better than what I remembered of the film. If you like 1990s-style edginess with a hint of cyberpunk, a hint of film noir and a decent dose of dystopian fiction, then this novel is well-worth reading. Seriously, why didn’t I read this when I was a teenager?

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s thriller elements, which are a good mixture of thrillingly fast-paced action scenes and more suspenseful moments. Surprisingly, the emphasis is slightly more on suspense, with a vaguely Chandleresque plot involving various factions within the city and a few scenes where characters have to hide from the authorities or deal with the local criminal underworld. All of this suspense also means that, when the novel’s action-packed finale eventually roars into view, it seems even more thrillingly dramatic by comparison.

The novel also includes a few well-placed horror elements too 🙂 Whether they are descriptions of life in the city (where rats are ever-present and many people live in grim poverty), some grisly moments, the war horrors relayed during the backstory segments or pretty much every scene involving Pryzer, this novel definitely has a rather chilling undercurrent to it which really help to add some intensity,darkness and atmosphere to this adaptation of a cheesy late-night movie.

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, there’s relatively little in the way of futuristic technology (other than a creepy mind-reading machine, some high-tech contact lenses and numerous fictional weapons) and the focus is more on the story’s dystopian alternate future. The novel goes into this in a lot more detail than the film does, with “excerpts” from a history book of the time appearing in between chapters of the story. Not only does this help to make the novel feel a bit more like a “serious” work of dystopian fiction, but this is also beautifully counterpointed by the atmosphere of the story too.

Seriously, this novel has the kind of sleazy, run-down, hedonistic, mildly cyberpunk and vaguely post-apocalyptic atmopshere that you only ever seem to see in films from the more hedonistic days of the 1980s/90s, and it is an absolute joy to behold here 🙂 A fair amount of the story takes place on dangerous streets, in Barb’s bar, in ominous abandoned buildings etc… and, thanks to the novel’s descriptions, these places feel like more than just film sets.

One interesting difference between the novel and what I remember of the film is that the novel’s dramatic final scenes take place in the dead of night rather than in the middle of the day – this is a small change, but it really helps to add both extra suspense and coolness to these spectacular action scenes. Likewise, it is implied that the novel takes place sometime around 2032 whereas- looking online – the film apparently takes place in the distant future of 2017. So, the book’s setting is a little bit more believable than the film’s.

In terms of the characters, this novel is surprisingly good. Thanks to the fact that this is a book rather than a film, there is a lot more focus on characterisation here. In addition to giving the villain more of a chilling backstory and adding extra complexity to Barb’s character (eg: her past with Axel, her desire to remain neutral in the war etc…) whilst still allowing her to be the kind of badass anti-hero that you’d expect from a 1990s movie, the novel also adds a bit more characterisation to many of the background characters too – which adds extra drama to the story, since you actually care about what happens to them.

In terms of the writing, this novel is better than I’d expected. The novel’s third-person narration mostly consists of the informal, hardboiled, fast-paced “matter of fact” narration that you’d expect from an action-thriller novel, but this is also paired with quite a few brilliant descriptive moments and gloriously cheesy ones (eg: ‘The sun was a scabrous orange, draining its venom into another day’) that help to add extra atmosphere.

This novel also has a few mildly experimental flourishes too, such as a film-script style dialogue scene, a few vaguely cyberpunk-influenced narrative moments and numerous “excerpts” from a fictional history book. Amusingly though, for such an “edgy” novel, the dialogue is surprisingly polite (with, for example, characters saying “friggin’ ” rather than the word you’d realistically expect them to use).

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a reasonably efficient 267 pages, it never outstays it’s welcome. The pacing is reasonably good too, with most of the story being moderately fast-paced (with the pace kept up via dialogue, suspense and occasional action scenes) and the final segment being slightly more fast-paced and action-packed. This contrast makes the ending seem even more thrilling and it works really well.

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged weirdly. The plot is still compelling, the locations are still atmospheric and the characters are still interesting. Yet, this novel really does feel like something from a different era – an era where people were a bit more hedonistic, where gloomy dystopian cyberpunk-influenced sci-fi was a more popular genre (seriously, it even turned up in the music video for “Spice Up Your Life” by the Spice Girls), where “edgy” anti-hero characters were popular etc… And I kind of miss it. Yes, some parts of this book haven’t aged all that well and there are a few “politically incorrect” moments. But, these aside, this book is a wonderfully nostalgic slice of late-night 1990s nostalgia.

All in all, this novelisation is much better than what I can remember of the film it is based on. On it’s own merits, it’s a reasonably fun, well-written, cheesy and very 1990s “edgy” dystopian sci-fi thriller novel that is compelling and atmospheric. Yes, it isn’t anything too groundbreaking, but it’s a far better book than I’d expected it to be.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a solid four.

Today’s Art (4th September 2017)

Woo hoo! I am very proud to present the second comic in my ‘back to basics’ “Damania Relaxation” webcomic mini series. If you missed the ‘old-school’ mini series (where every comic was self-contained), then you’re in luck!

If you want to catch up on other old-style mini series, or check out some of the more recent story-based ones, links to them all can be found here. You can also check out previous comics in this mini series here: One

As regular readers probably know, I make these comics ages in advance. So, I made this one in 2016 – which really did feel like the beginning of a “dystopian alternate timeline” sub-plot in a sci-fi series. And, yes, I’m terrible at drawing Nigel Farage too.

As usual, this comic update (but not yesterday’s one!) is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Damania Relaxation - Timeline" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Relaxation – Timeline” By C. A. Brown

Does Dystopian Science Fiction Actually Change Anything?

2017-artwork-does-dystopian-science-fiction-change-anything

Ever since I discovered the genre when I was a teenager, I’ve been a fan of dystopian science fiction. Hell, I even read “Nineteen Eighty-Four” twice when I was about thirteen or fourteen. If I remember rightly, I was absolutely fascinated by the ominously mysterious, yet creepily fascinating, world that the novel is set in. It was a little bit like the vintage 1970s-90s horror novels I enjoyed reading at the time, but it also contained sci-fi too.

Not only that, the cyberpunk genre has been one of those “dystopian” types of science fiction that I’ve been fascinated with for a long time. In fact, I read my first cyberpunk novel when I was about twelve ( one of the “Tom Clancy’s Net Force Explorers” books, I can’t remember which one) without even realising that it was cyberpunk.

Since then, I’ve had something of an on and off fascination with the genre. Most recently, I’ve become fascinated with the genre again because it has proven to be an amazing source of artistic inspiration (like in this recent sci-fi comedy comic of mine).

The cyberpunk genre is often labelled as dystopian science fiction and, whilst there are certainly dystopian stories, films, books, games etc.. in the cyberpunk genre, it never really feels “dystopian”. Not only does the cyberpunk genre often feature breathtakingly beautiful neon-lit cities, but it often includes enough intriguing background details and dark humour to offset any depressingly “dystopian” elements of the genre.

The most recent example of this that I’ve seen is in a computer game called “Technobablyon” that I mentioned yesterday. I’d played some more of it and found myself playing a part of the game (that involves solving a grisly murder) that should have been disturbingly horrific. However, thanks to the dialogue from the characters and the sheer weirdness of the solution to the mystery, this part of the game was more of a hilariously farcical dark comedy than a disturbing glimpse at where a technology-filled future could lead:

Talking of dark comedy, a while before I played this part of the game, I was curious about another work of dystopian science fiction – Charlie Brooker’s “Black Mirror” TV series. I’d been vaguely thinking about getting it on DVD since it was something that should have appealed to me – given my cynical sense of humour. Yet, when I read a few plot summaries on Wikipedia, I realised that it was actually serious dystopian science fiction…. and not in a fun way.

The story outlines I’d read seemed depressingly bleak and genuinely frightening. Even a mere description of some of the technology-based storylines in the series filled me with a real sense of paranoid dread. It was probably where technology might lead to in the future, and it terrified me. This is, of course, what dystopian science fiction is supposed to do.

It’s supposed to show the audience where the future could lead, in the hope that the audience will somehow prevent such a terrible future from coming true.

But, it doesn’t work. When I read those descriptions, I realised that there was literally nothing I could do to prevent any kind of dystopian future. I mean, it’s a long-standing joke that governments don’t see “Nineteen-Eighty Four” as a warning, but as a manual. Extending surveillance (and censorship too) seems to be part of the psyche of many major political parties, so it happens regardless of which one wins an election. The left and the right are just as bad as each other in this regard.

Dystopian science fiction is supposed to be like a vaccine – giving people a small dose of something terrible in the hope that it will prevent something even worse from happening in the future. But, this comes with the assumption that people can actually prevent worse things from happening.

In a more optimistic age, when real news mattered more than fake news, when people cared more about things like free speech and privacy, when people debated ideas instead of being lost in filter bubbles and the many left-wing/right-wing echo chambers on the internet etc… this might have been true.

But, in this modern world, dystopian science fiction is just another genre of entertainment. It can be a really cool one, or it can be an extremely depressing one. But, I think that the argument that it can actually change the world for the better has long since been proven wrong.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Dystopic Sci-Fi Is A Very Modern Genre – A Ramble

2015 Artwork Dystopic sci fi has to be modern article sketch

A few months ago, I happened to watch a rather chilling Youtube video which pointed out some of the many ways that the programs on your smartphone can track you and spy on you. Although I thankfully don’t own a smartphone, this video made me think of the dystopic sci-fi genre.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to define “dystopic sci-fi” as being any story that presents a dystopian view of the future at the time it was written, regardless of whether it contains any overt sci-fi elements.

Anyway, the dystopic sci-fi genre is one of the most modern genres out there (for reasons I’ll explain later). Arguably, the first popular dystopic sci-fi novel was George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” which, when it was first published in 1949, tapped into widespread fears about totalitarian governments. After all, it was just four years after the end of World War Two and the Soviet Union was also still a major world power at the time.

Although Orwell’s novel still has a lot of resonance today, it is for very different reasons than the ones that existed in 1949. The theme of all-encompassing government surveillance was kind of a large background detail in the original novel but – when someone compares something to Orwell these days, they’re probably going to be talking about surveillance rather than about communism and/or fascism.

Even in Alan Moore’s “V For Vendetta” graphic novel from the 1980s, he intended the omnipresent government surveillance cameras to be just a background symbol that would emphasise that Britain had been taken over by a fascist government. In addition to this, he also points out the obvious fact that dystopic sci-fi is always about the time that it was written too.

Of course, when you read “V For Vendetta” these days, the thing that jumps out at you isn’t Alan Moore’s fears about 1980s politics, but the fact that – like Orwell – the government is spying on everyone. The fact that we essentially all live in one giant panopticon these days.

So, why am I talking about all of this stuff? Am I just being paranoid?

Well, probably. But, the main reason why I’m talking about all of this stuff is to illustrate something about the dystopic sci-fi genre – namely that it only really “works” when it emphasises current fears. In other words, in order to be taken seriously, a dystopic sci-fi story has to have modern relevance. When a dystopic sci-fi story loses it’s modern relevance, then it becomes nothing more than a cross between a joke and a historical curiosity.

A good example of this would be an old American movie from the 1980s called “Red Dawn“. It’s a dystopic alternate future movie about the Soviets invading America and, at the time, it was probably quite chilling.

But, even though I only watched it once on VHS when I was a teenager (in the early 00s), I just kind of saw it as a silly action movie rather than a chilling warning about the future. After all, the film had long lost it’s modern relevance and – well – it had turned into something of a joke.

In 2012, they tried to remake “Red Dawn”, with North Korea taking the place of the Soviets from the original film. Although I haven’t seen the modern remake, I very much doubt that it had the same impact as the original movie did for the simple reason that no-one is worried about North Korea invading America.

Orginally, the filmmakers had apparently wanted to make a film about China invading the US but decided against it for political and financial reasons. Even this arguably more “plausible” dystopic future story is still laughably absurd, given how China and the US both heavily depend on each other economically. The two countries may not be allies, but it’s fairly obvious that they have something of a mutually-beneficial symbiotic relationship with each other that would be ruined if one tried to invade the other.

So, yes, dystopic sci-fi only really works when it is directly relevant to modern fears about the future. This is why background details from dystopic fiction from the 1940s-80s can still be part of our modern culture, but how single-issue dystopic stories often quickly go out of date after a few years.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂