The fast-paced world of James K. Decker's The Burn Zone is an excellent example of a growing movement within the genre: a recognition that Planet Earth is a complicated and diverse place. Here, we have a society that isn't a cookie cutter facsimile of the United States and where the protagonist isn't a Caucasian male. Taking place in cyberpunkish Hangfei, Xiao-Xing (Nicknamed Sam) blasts through the city where she's pursued by a number of parties who will stop at nothing to keep her from unraveling their destructive plans.
The Burn Zone takes place sometime in our future, where Earth’s population has swelled to beyond fifteen billion people, and has a new intelligent race on its surface, the Haan. The alien race has apparently come in peace: stranded, they have to roll out technology to humanity in a series of organized stages, and have begun a cooperative exchange program. Starving and looking to become a parent, Sam has become a part of this surrogate program, fostering Haan infants. Her life is turned upside down when a squad of soldiers, led by a female Haan, burst into her apartment and drag off her adoptive father. This touches off an intense read as Sam finds herself tested to her absolute limits and places her in the midst of a plot that could doom humanity.
This book rests comfortably on its well formed characters, and who band around Sam as the Haan and government agents follow closely behind. There’s Nix, an outcast Haan who had been sent to kill her, and Vamp, a hacker, who back up Sam as she tries to figure out why her adoptive father, Dragan, was dragged off for reportedly smuggling some sort of weapon into the country. His efforts to thwart his captors worked, leaving just enough clues to lead Sam and her friends on the right track to uncover the plot and derail its penetrators.
Sam is a neat central character in this book, and it’s nice to see an Asian, female character that doesn’t quite fit into the extremes of ‘tough, unemotional action girl’ and ‘emotional, vulnerable girl’. Rather, she’s somewhere in the middle: not afraid to ask for help from people who are close to her, but also strong enough to make and carry out decisions for herself. There’s a neat point where she’s offered tips to make her more desirable through plastic surgery by AI advertising, only to be shot down without a second thought.
The Haan and their back-story are also a neat element that gets unraveled as the story progresses. Inventing a wholly ‘alien’ alien race is a difficult task. How does one create something for which we have literally no context? Decker does a good job creating something interesting, yet relatable at the same time, weaving in themes of racism and environmentalism at the same time.
Finally, the world and story created here are grounded and plausible, taking equal parts District 9 and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. The setting is bright with color, sound and smell as our characters crash through it, while the plot has some interesting points to make with technological innovation and the fate of the human race. There’s also a real sense that the stakes are high: Earth’s on the brink of environmental collapse due to overpopulation, and in a lot of ways, the Haan represent humanity’s only hope to survive, while Earth represents the Haan’s best chance for survival. The role which Sam plays isn’t coincidental, and it reveals quite a bit about the story that unfolds.
Decker does this entire juggling act well: he moves the action and characters along at a breakneck speed, and while his book could probably stand to shed a couple of redundant chapters, it follows a neatly organized plan that brings the reader along on a neatly plotted path. Ultimately, Decker’s characters are moralistic people who strive to do the right thing, heroes that we want to root for, who are in the right place to save their way of life. Dragan, coming across a plot to introduce a biological weapon into the country does what any good person would do: go to great lengths to pull out the firing pin before its too late. Sam is a good person for her role: she’s a rare person who’s been modified to help infant Haan, despite quite a bit of social opposition. It’s actions like these that come in handy along the way for all involved, and which ultimately aid them as the tension ratchets up. It’s a bit simplistic at points, but it’s refreshing to break away from the flood of ambiguous (but ultimately good) anti-heroes that seem to have populated the literary world in the recent years.
The Burn Zone is the equivalent of a fairly smart science fiction movie – Hollywood mechanics, but something that’s a cut above the typical summer blockbuster, and it hits a lot of the right buttons. It’s got plenty of action, a cast of smart characters, an intriguing plot that keeps the story running nicely, and a world that throws out a couple of neat surprises that don’t make me want to throw the book away. In a lot of ways, this book fits alongside some of the other recent SF thrillers, and this novel only adds to the growing ranks of solid science fiction adventures.