Mostly set around Atlanta, with excursions to Louisiana, Stephen Kearse’s Liquid Snakes is a psychotropic crime thriller, a revenge story, and a bitter invective against environmental racism. It’s also an immensely engaging read—clever and nimble in its narration, pointed in its critiques—with a chorus of interesting voices and arresting images.
Although the novel is told through a constellation of viewpoints, its throughline is Kenny Bomar, a bereaved coffee shop owner and former chemist whose stages of grief include “bioweapon manufacturing”. His ultimate goal is fairly scrutable—destroying the people responsible for killing his unborn daughter, the corporate monsters polluting Black neighborhoods. But how his plan plays out—which includes self-poisoning with snake venom, creating encrypted messaging apps, and assisting teenage suicides with dramatic chemical “blackouts”—is anything but. Many of the characters—Kenny’s ex-wife Maddy Tusk and CDC doctors Ebonee McCollum and Retta Vickers—spend the novel trying to figure out what exactly is going on. Following their circumambulating investigations gives a sense of the depth of injustice here, of which Kenny’s mission is only one manifestation. One of the ongoing tragedies of Liquid Snakes is the way that its characters are turned against each other, even though they’d mostly agree on the real enemies.
Full of shifting textual rhythms, pop cultural references, and darkly comedic moments among its depressing realities, Liquid Snakes constantly surprised me with its clever asides and details. For one thing, it’s an absolute delight to read a coffee shop owner who actually knows and cares about specialty coffee—not the trope, but the thing itself. Kearse uses his array of narrators to good effect, from the occasionally-hallucinating Kenny to believably-teenage voices and the emotive, determined investigators trying to find the truth despite an obscuring haze of institutional and societal bullshit. We’re given a magazine article bio of a minor police character that’s masterful in showing the racism and blindspots of both its subject and (fictional) author, while still building the sense of the complexity of historical and generational violence, and the EULA for Kenny’s messaging app that’s packed with satirical technobabble and starkly revolutionary interjections: “You do not need permission to be free, but you might need weapons.”
There are plenty of points of weirdness and horror for Kearse to lean into—the slow violence of pollution leaching, cell by cell, into the bodies of Black communities, and the far more dramatic chemical terror that Kenny has concocted—but there’s a scouring purpose to the characters here that sets the novel well apart from horror. It’s a reaction to horror, the horror of actual conditions, and that reaction is not fear but a barbed and potent anger—often hidden in the narrative by derisive humor and flashes of despair, only to uncoil in sudden and vengeful clarity.
Although it’s not the focus of Liquid Snakes, it is satisfying how neither Kearse nor his characters save their scorn for the police—particularly notable in Ebonee and Retta’s chapters, as two characters who are genuinely concerned with public health. Trying to piece together the social groundwork for these startling suicides and murders, Ebonee and Retta conduct interviews that are less effective at catching Kenny as they are at revealing the fractal depths of the case. Contrast that with the cops’ focus on finding dead bodies and punishing live ones: “That narrowness was the actual thin blue line, a strained squint misunderstood as deep focus.”
I’m seeing more and more fiction that speculates about direct action as a necessary part of liberation, even survival, in a world where incremental change seems utterly invalidated by entrenched power systems. One of the more often-commented-on aspects of Kim Stanley Robinson’s otherwise-optimistic The Ministry for the Future is how much it quietly relies on terrorism and assassination to combat climate change; R.F. Kuang’s Babel, grappling with British colonialism in a magical setting, is subtitled Or the Necessity of Violence; Vajra Chandrasekera’s astounding The Saint of Bright Doors, a sophisticated engagement with the layers of cultural baggage behind systemic oppression, asserts that “the only way to change the world is through intentional, directed violence.”
Those examples are all from clear speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy). Liquid Snakes will certainly appeal to the speculative reader, with its inventive energy and outlandish chemical weapons, but it’s also unmistakably grounded in contemporary Black reality. The whole bitter point is that Kenny is “crazed, not crazy. Aggrieved, not grieving.” He has a specific target—the board of the polluting Kingman company—but the issue, as Maddy points out, is much bigger and harder to eliminate; corporations are by their nature hydras, quick to sprout new heads when one is cut off. Part of what makes this novel work is how it both contains despair—that seeming impossibility to change this brutal machine we’re caught up in, whether that’s racism or pollution or capitalism—and moves past it.
For Kenny, that means that action is worth it, even if he can’t restore the past or guarantee the change he wants: “I’m here for the demolition. I can’t waste any more of my life on reconstruction.” That’s a potent storyline, on its own; what really struck me about Liquid Snakes is how it doesn’t leave it at that. Kearse’s kaleidoscopic narration flashes glimpses of the complexity of the present—the kinds of lives of and struggles that can’t be captured neatly in one man’s revenge story—and he refuses to delimit the weirdness he’s introduced. This is what makes Liquid Snakes shine qua speculative fiction, what makes it rise above the bitter, poisoned realities it’s exploring: the change it’s introduced, the fusion of pathology and resistance in “blackouts”, is a change that doesn’t stop with Kenny’s story; it’s a change that points toward something else, beyond its own conclusion.
by Stephen Kearse
Published August 8th, 2023
Appalachian in the big city. Bookseller, specialty coffee pro, SF scholar.