“I’m not trying to be a hero, man. I’m kinda the opposite, actually. Right now, I just have to do what’s right.”
In a not-so-distant past, Jeph was a solider, then a gunslinger for hire. And then he fell in love, got married and gave it up. Now all he wants is to live a quiet life at home. But, those best-laid plans have met up with an old comrade-in-arms (and crime) who wants to pull off one more heist before he dies of some horrible disease. Jeph's not interested and tells them so definitively. But he's cajoled, badgered and threatened into going along with them. We all know this story, having read/seen it more times than we can count. But you've never seen it told this way.
Their target? A weapon called The Red Orb. Not only is it unbelievably lethal, but its users become addicted to it—the power and the way it ingratiates itself with the user's mind. A devastating weapon and users jonesing to wield it. There's only a billion ways that could go wrong.
A lot of the science/gadgets/weapons in this science-fiction-y novel makes no sense, and that's okay. It's not supposed to, it's just a plot device to get the characters and/or conflict to be where Barbee wants it. I said it before, and I'll say it again, I don't really understand the conventions (or lack thereof) of Bizarro fiction, but it seems to me that it's just whatever strange and odd bit of sciency thing the author comes up with at the moment—the stranger the better—while telling his story. Feel free to correct me in the comments. The important thing is that the SF elements are cuckoo-bananas and the reader should just roll with it.
The Red Orb is in a city not that far away called Obscuria. Which is basically what would happen if you took San Diego Comic Con, transported it into a Ready Player One meets Blade Runner future and then turned it into a city. Jeph and the band have to learn how to play by the rules of Obscuria and hopefully to hijack these rules in order to find and secure the Orb. Making the book a thinly disguised critique of Geek/Internet culture but it's done in such a way that you can tell that Barbee is steeped in the sub-culture he's examining and commenting on. Jeph's account may be scathing, but it's not spiteful. Nor is it dour, and all negative—you typically can't help but grin as you see what Barbee is commenting on (and, honestly, it's hard to disagree with most of his commentary).
When I sat down to write, I had a very clear idea how I was going to express "What this book is about." But the more I think about it, I'm not sure I can unpack it all. There's a lot about self-determination, about choosing to make your present and future different from your past. About how the wounds of the past and our self-deception aren't easily overcome to stop our self-destructive tendencies. About our own tendencies to be trapped by our perceptions. It's about in the Internet/Geek culture how do we determine the worth of someone/an act/a thought? Is it the quality? Is it the rareness? How easily it can be licensed and commodified? Why do anything if it isn't related to clicks, likes, influences? What about those who've rejected and/or not-embraced that kind of life? How can they make their way through a Geek culture? And I think I'm really just scratching the surface.
So, yeah, you've got a tried-and-true setup, morphed into a SF-ish reality as an excuse to talk about what's worth pursuing in our contemporary culture. Told in a strange, generally amusing and sometimes funny way. You won't get through this book easily (it's not a difficult read, but sometimes the imagery takes longer than usual to conjure up), but you may come through it better.
While it shared many sensibilities with last year's Jimbo Yojimbo, it was a bit more restrained and a lot more heartfelt. It's probably a better book overall—I didn't enjoy it as much personally, but it's one of those times I remind myself that ratings are about my overall appreciation, not (necessarily) the merits of the novel. I've liked both works by Barbee that I've tried so far, I need to find more by him.