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.