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Hammered by Elizabeth Bear3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsWhen I first saw the pre-release information for Elizabeth (No Relation to Greg) Bear’s Hammered, I immediately thought, That’s a great title for an action story, provided the protagonist isn’t named Hammer. Fortunately, she isn’t. 

I must confess, though, I almost gave up on Hammered. In its opening chapters, Bear doesn’t merely wear her influences on her sleeve. She parades them down Main Street with floats and a forty-piece marching band. It is impossible to check off all of the tropes Bear introduces — dystopian near-future, check; embittered heroine with enhancements and attitude, check; human/computer interfacing, check; rain-soaked urban decay populated by street-smart toughs, some with hearts of gold, check; corporate venality and corruption, check — and not conclude that she’s learned all she knows from reading every cyberpunk novel of the ’80s multiple times, and by watching Blade Runner so often that Rutger Hauer’s spiky white hair is burned into her monitor. Then there’s the little on-the-nose detail that her heroine’s home address is — ready? — “Sigourney Street.” Just in case there was any doubt about how you're meant to visualize and relate to Bear’s world. 

Then something remarkable happens. Before you know it, Bear has rolled up her “Yes, I’m derivative and I don’t care!” banner, stowed it away, and gotten down to the business of putting her own talents on display. And the story that emerges is engrossing, impressively complex (that is, Bear knows how to stop herself before complexity morphs into incomprehensibility), and suspenseful. And it features a cast who, for the most part, evolve into emotionally engaging and sympathetic characters whose personal demons are believable and whose crises allow us to become personally invested. With all that going for her, what starts out as embarrassingly retro about Hammered eventually settles into something more permissable: homage. But it takes time. 

It’s 2062. Jenny Casey was once a pilot for the Canadian military who underwent extensive reconstruction — new arm, brain implants, etc. — after a fiery crash. Now a civilian and living in the US, which is no longer the superpower it was following the bad leadership of something called the Christian Fascist regime (boy, was this ever prescient), Jenny is tracked down by her estranged sister, who’s working for Valens, Jenny’s former superior. Valens wants to lure Jenny back to Canada with promises of some state-of-the-art upgrades to her body mods, which were dicey technology when new, are really obsolete now, and will probably kill her in a few very short years. In return for this, he naturally has a task for her. 

There’s a new drug making the rounds of all the kids in Jenny’s hood. It’s a tainted form of Hammer, the drug manufactured by the Canadian corporation that rebuilt Jenny, meant to help her and other patients manage the pain of their mods. (Indeed, Jenny is the only person of several to have survived these early mods.) When a young kid belonging to a gang run by her friend Razorface, the kind of altruistic not-bad-just-misunderstood crimelord who only exists in stories like this one, OD’s nastily on the stuff, and then a cop investigating the drug is shot execution-style, Jenny gets more than a little suspicious of what Valens is up to. Also suspicious is an old lover of Jenny’s, Gabe Castaign (who rescued her from the wreckage) and Elspeth Dunsany, an AI researcher sprung from prison (having been convicted of espionage) by Valens to return to her old line of work. 

As busy as Bear’s plot is, this isn’t where the book’s real dramatic tension springs from. The plot’s Big Secret is revealed fifty pages in, so we all know what it is, materially speaking, that all of the major players are after. What Hammered is really about is Jenny’s personal journey out of a cul-de-sac of recrimination and self-loathing. In many ways, Jenny, pushing fifty, feels she hasn’t the right to have survived so long after all she’s been through. Her civilian life is one of hiding from past failures. There is a dead younger sister she feels she ought to have protected. She feels a loser both personally and professionally. Much of the reason she resists the idea of getting her mods upgraded has nothing to do with the 30% likelihood they’ll fail completely. It’s that her anger and bitterness makes her hold onto the scarred body her old mods have left her with. Far from being either maudlin or mawkish, Bear handles Jenny’s character arc with sensitivity.

Less satisfying is Bear’s handling of her villains. With all the bad stuff Valens is responsible for, for some reason you never feel the loathing for him that Jenny and her allies feel. Bear just doesn’t sell him as villainous enough. He’s a pretty feeble bad guy. Remember, he’s Jenny and Elspeth’s former boss, and for most of the book that’s all he comes across as: just an asshole former boss you once had and don’t remember well. Also given short shrift is Jenny’s older sister Barb, the one who tracked her down for Valens. It turns out (don’t worry, this isn’t a big spoiler) that she’s behind the Hammer street distribution and worse. But Bear never explains why she’s gone mega-evil. Barb is the one villain in the book who’s really mean, but her motivations are shrouded in mystery. Strong heroes without strong villains to go up against are weakened from a dramatic standpoint. Bear’s heroes do matter to us, but they’d matter more if we hated their adversaries as much as they do.

Though the book ends at the appropriate point to mark a transition to the inescapable sequel, the ending still feels abrupt. But I’m glad Bear didn’t fall into the bloat trap, opting instead to give us some reasonably tight 325-page books instead of one supersized 650-page doorstop. She has enough percolating talent that I’m actually ready for her sequel. There is so much so-so series fiction in SF and fantasy these days that, to be honest, if I weren’t reviewing, I wouldn't be sufficiently excited or motivated to go on to read book two of most of them. Readers looking for intelligent and heartfelt action storytelling ought to check out Elizabeth Bear. Hammered might not leave you hammered, but you’ll get quite a good buzz off it all the same. 

Followed by Scardown.