Tropical Punch (Bubbles in Space #1) – S.C. Jensen – Review

Tropical Punch: Bubbles in Space Book #1

S.C. Jensen

Northern Edge Publishing

Sometimes there are titles where the combination of cover art and title just instantly grab my attention and refuse to let go until I start reading them, wedging themselves into my memory and stubbornly refusing to go away. Such is the case with S.C. Jensen’s curiously-titled Tropical Punch which features a frankly stunning visual feast as its cover art, with its neon-drenched visuals and 1980s-style fonts and background details, along with the side-on profile view of badass cyberpunk-style protagonist Bubbles Marlowe with her neon-pink hair and cybernetic arm. It’s a superbly-crafted piece of cover art and instantly caught my eye, with the back-cover blurb ensuring that I wanted to actually read the novel. A semi-legal Private Investigator in futuristic HoloCity, the partially-cyborg Bubbles has been forcefully retired from the HoloCity Police Department and is instead just trying to find work wherever she can, like tracking down dodgy people in nightclubs to deliver messages for mysterious clients. But when a seemingly normal and straightforward contract leads to murder, and then rapidly expands to encompass an anti-tech cult, a lethal new street drug, and corrupt senior police officers, Bubbles finds herself enmeshed in a complex and potentially lethal conspiracy and hunted across HoloCity. Her only choice now is to forget ahead and try and use her wit, skills and cybernetic arm to try and discover who’s behind the murders before the body count includes her. It sounded like a fascinating plot with an intriguing protagonist; and as I’m trying to review more scifi titles, this seemed like the perfect novel to review.

When Tropical Punch opens, it would be fair to say that life has certainly been better for Bubbles Marlowe. She lost her job with the HoloCity Police Department when her plasma rifle exploded, taking one of her arms with it, and she’s been reduced to taking odd jobs for even odder clients – one of which sees her making her way through crowds of drunks, druggies and the general scum of society in a dingy bar, in search of a woman to give a message. Her passage is aided by her cybernetic arm, but hindered by corrupt former partners in HoloCity PD and the meat-puppet bouncers employed by the bar owner, meaning that she’s too late when a bout of terrified screaming indicates her target is in trouble. Bubbles soon finds herself confronted with a corpse leaking blood, a terrified and unreliable witness standing over the body and in possession of a strange piece of jewelry, and the arrival of a vicious killer trying to dispose of the evidence. Barely getting away with her life, Bubbles’ simple job soon escalates exponentially until she finds herself framed for multiple murders, forced to go on the run and abandon the life she had painfully forged for herself after being forced to resign from the Police Department. In her attempts to clear her name and find the real killer, Bubbles finds herself embroiled in a conspiracy around a murdered scientist (and good friend), deadly drug deals and a fanatical anti-tech cult, not to mention a deadly assassin and a corrupt chief of police. And it will all end in digging up secrets about HoloCity that would be better off left hidden.

Cyberpunk dystopias are a dime a dozen in the scifi genre, to the extent of course that cyberpunk is itself a subgenre of scifi. That means that I’ve read countless novels, novellas and short stories set in neon-drenched ultra-capitalist hellholes, ranging from the very good to the incredibly bad; as such, that vast experience allows me to confidently state that Jensen’s version of cyberpunk is one of best that I’ve ever come across. It has this gritty, crunchy feeling to it that a lot of cyberpunk writers utterly fail to come close to no matter how many words they pen; Jensen seems to have this innate ‘feel’ for just how to portray the subgenre, deftly bringing the reader into the setting by neither underselling or exaggerating the dire circumstances and dystopian atmosphere present in the form of HoloCity and its inhabitants. It’s genuinely impressive, and a major indication that Jensen is a highly talented writer. HoloCity looms forever in the background, grim, foreboding and packed with deadly secrets that affect Bubbles and the rest of the novel’s cast, even when the latter part of the novel changes scenery completely and moves the action to the luxury orbital cruise ship Island Dreamer, the playground of the ultra-rich or ultra-lucky, and usually the sort of thing that someone like Bubbles could never even hope to catch a glimpse of, let alone set foot onboard. 

Indeed, the pomp and circumstance and overwhelming luxury of the futuristic cruise liner acts as an intriguing counterpart to HoloCity – on the surface it seems to offer all the glamour that one would expect to see in a futuristic setting, and yet Jensen subtly seeds the narrative with indications that in many ways life is little better onboard the floating peon to capitalism. I was particularly fond of the conflicts between futuristic holo-skins that make the wearer look exactly how they want – slim, sexy, stunning – that are still forced to yield and disappear completely when confronted with the anti-crime panopticon surveillance system implanted throughout the vessel. It’s little concepts like that which demonstrate just how much thought Jensen has put into the setting – enriching both the setting and the reader’s experience. Jensen manages the tremendously difficult feat of creating a fusion of the gritty noir attitude and tropes and the cyberpunk setting and technology, in order to create a unique feeling I’ve never come across before; she even manages the difficult task of inventing or co-opting slang for pieces of technology and social roles that are both noir and futuristic, and yet also easy enough for the reader to interpret.

Together with the superb prose and deeply impressive imagination used to craft the setting, Tropical Punch also has a fantastic cast, with Jensen clearly having a knack for forging unique characters that made me buy further into the narrative and generally feel engaged with the world building she’d engaged in throughout the novel. I really took to Bubbles Marlowe as a protagonist – she’s quick-witted and tough and gritty like all typical noir protagonists, but Jensen gradually leavens her character with distinctive and original traits that make her stand out and easy for the reader to empathize with. In fact, Jensen also manages another difficult feat by the end of the novel – creating a protagonist I wanted to follow as well as a story. Usually with the stories I read and review it’s either one or the other, but Jensen manages to get two out of two – another sign that she’s someone to follow closely. Looking at the supporting characters in Tropical Punch, Hammett the cyberpet was a particular favourite of mine, a sort of cross between a roomba, artificial intelligence and VR set that acts as pet, personal computer and even a confidant of sorts; his cynicism and sense of dark humour, as well as his entire general concept, marked him out as a character that I hope to see more of in the rest of the series. I also really liked the late-story appearance of one Cosmo Regale, makeup artist and businessman – better known as the “Gutter Queen of Cosmetics” and one of the funnier characters I’ve come across in noir and cyberpunk stories over the years. In addition- while trying to keep away from spoilers that could ruin the novel for potential readers – The Last Humanist Church and the fanatical anti-technology purity of its credo and followers makes for a superb antagonist faction (indeed one of several) that continued to be memorable even after I’d finished the book. Taken all together, and you have a three-dimensional and engaging set of diverse characters to further cement the imaginative and atmospheric setting Jensen developed.

Tropical Punch is actually one of the best cyberpunk noir thrillers that I’ve ever read, and that’s all down to author S.C. Jensen’s inherent talent as an author and storyteller. She’s created this gritty, vibrant and neon-drenched setting that – while it seems like it would struggle to stand out amongst its innumerable competitors – has been invested with so much imagination, atmosphere and stellar prose to come to life and rise far above the usual second-rate cyberpunk novels that infest the genre. Jensen has made cyberpunk interesting again for me – and I think she’ll be doing the same for a lot of readers when they pick up Tropical Punch and the rest of the books in the Bubbles in Space series. S.C. Jensen joins a number of other highly talented up-and-coming authors on my radar – and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next

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