Elizabeth Bear’s first novel, Hammered — the first novel in a trilogy — literally starts off with a bang: a gangster (“Razorface. Gets his name from a triple row of stainless steel choppers”) is nearly knocking Jenny Casey’s door down in an effort to get her to save the life of one of his hammered “boys,” a baby gangster, “maybe fourteen, maybe twelve,” who has overdosed on a drug named Hyperex. It’s a mystery how the boy got hold of the drug — called the Hammer — which is classified and made by only two licensed pharmaceutical companies for the American and, chiefly, Canadian armies. Jenny Casey has reason to be familiar with it; she used to take it, as a former Canadian Special Forces soldier, and it’s unlikely to be a street knockoff or cloned by a multinational company. Who is letting loose the drug on the street, and is it a bad batch, and why have they done so in Jenny Casey’s neighborhood?
The complex answer to those deceptively simple questions ranges over Hartford, New York, Toronto, a corporation intranet and avatar gamespace, and even, at one point, “Neverwhere and neverwhen.” Bear’s novel is global in scope, and although it’s not a pessimistic dystopian novel, it shares much with John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up as a sobering projection of unchecked current social, political and environmental trends. It would be difficult to show all this through the eyes of one first-person character, and wisely, Bear doesn’t attempt it; instead, Jenny shares narration with four other major third-person characters, all of whom are deftly introduced in the first twenty-five pages. Although action leaps from one locale to another and there are several flashback to thirteen and fifteen years prior to the current time of 2062, Bear takes care to keep her reader oriented with news-style detailed date-and-time slugs. Bear also resembles Brunner in at first starting off with a large variety of characters in a number of different scenes, all of whom are drawn closer and closer together — physically and emotionally — as the action inexorably progresses, with Jenny as the core of the story; she is at once the most powerful and most vulnerable character in the book.
Although a careless reader might be lulled by the presence of drugs, the hard-edged narration, and the run-down setting of the opening scene into thinking this novel is dystopian or even cyberpunk in nature, such expectations are quickly undercut by Bear. Jenny Casey isn’t a glamorously outfitted beautiful siren of the William Gibson variety; she’s a month from fifty, has a twenty-year-old scratched and battered steel left arm courtesy of the Canadian Army, and the burn scars and prosthetic eye on the left half of her face contrast with her Mohawk features and skin color. She has a nervous system so jacked up that a slowed-down, nightmarish “combat time” in response to perceived threats is never more than a second away, and those threats themselves are never far away, as she hides in a junk-filled, violent United States racked by religious conflict, avoiding the Canadian government, her own past, and her dubious future.
Without giving too much away, it can be said that the underlying theme of Bear’s novel is salvage, in all its senses — Jenny doesn’t just hide in her neighborhood, she’s known as someone to come to for street-level medical care, and her concern for the place which shelters her is echoed by Razorface, whose inner monologues have a quiet, profound dignity and occasionally a poetic, yet realistic, turn of phrase. Although he is a powerful warlord, he’s not simply exploiting the people he lives among; he is doing the limited best he can in the service of personal reasons and ideals. Indeed, every character in Hammered, even the villainous, have their own powerful motives for their actions; and conversely, the hands of the “good” characters are never entirely clean, and they make fearful moral bargains and compromises simply because they can’t see any better way to do what they must. They all try to salvage what they can, including Jenny — who was salvaged herself from two disastrous helicopter crashes, and who bitterly embodies the meaning of salvage as property as her past draws her deep back in again, late in the novel.
The ending of Hammered satisfyingly ties up the various plot threads in this particular volume of the story, but the resolutions to those questions themselves pose other, bigger questions which will presumably be answered — and further expanded — in the second and third volumes of the trilogy. Although Jenny is healed in some ways, she is endangered, possibly even further damaged, in others, and she and her friends remain poised in a very unstable equilibrium — which reflects the double meaning of “hammered” both being pounded into shape and forced out of shape. The final, moving image of the book, which includes the Earth seen from Clarke station, embodies the novel’s central theme of how what we would choose to preserve and what we wish to discard are sometimes inextricable.