Lucky 7, written by 2016 Rainbow Award Winner Rae D. Magdon and published by Desert Palm Press, is a cyberpunk tale told through the first-person perspectives of its protagonists, and eventual lovers, Elena Nevares, a latinx bisexual hacker from Mexico City, and Sasha Young, a black sapphic handler born in America but naturalized in Russia. They’re joined by a misfit team and ad-hoc family of other specialists that cover just about every other angle of queerness and race under the sun as they unearth a conspiracy that connects far too close to home. Also they fight a virtual dragon.
It is, in short, a cyberpunk narrative unlike any other, though not for the reasons you think. But we’ll circle back to that. Also it’s extremely sexually explicit, so take that into account if it’s not your cup of tea. That being said, every instance of intimacy is wonderfully characterizing for both parties as well as deeply evocative. What I’m saying is that it’s not just shameless smut; there’s a purpose for it, just like pretty much everything else in Lucky 7.
I’m entirely sure if this is common knowledge about me, but I love cyberpunk as a setting. It combines two of my favorite niche genres: noir and hard sci-fi. Cyberpunk stories typically live and die by the immersiveness of their settings, rather than the characters or even the plot itself. It’s most often a trip into a capitalist hellscape where governments have been rendered obsolete by mega-corporations and quite literally everything has been privatized. It’s an endlessly interesting logical extreme that continues to be explored every day in our lifetime, as it’s really not that far removed from our current reality.
The world’s current wage gap between what remains of the middle class and the hyper-rich is the largest it’s ever been, and you have mega corporations (Amazon, Disney, Comcast, Google…) buying up other companies for a legal monopoly of not only telecoms but content creation itself. While we don’t currently live in an industrial nightmare where most of Southern California has merged into one urban sprawl, it’s not hard to see the multitude of other ways society could evolve (or devolve, depending on your point of view) as corporate superpowers continue to consolidate power.
Which is where the conspiracies come in. The combination of the “hard boiled detective” being smashed together with a reality that is both so similar to and yet so unlike the classic noir tales of the 1940s just makes sense, even if the subsequent haymakers that are Blade Runner and 1995’s Ghost in the Shell hadn’t done the heavy lifting. It’s always about the human condition, what we define as alive, and how corruption and greed can feed on everyone regardless of origin.
Magdon’s Lucky 7 addresses all of those questions, and more, but what’s most remarkable about her book is that it does it in one of the most staunchly colorful cyberpunk settings I think I’ve ever witnessed. And I mean that in terms of both race and literal color. When you consider cyberpunk, you’re normally thinking of the grey, rainy, concrete and steel jungles that seem inescapable to the common citizen. Thanks to its 1940s noir roots, that’s by design. But it apparently doesn’t have to be.
Lucky 7 is set in June of 2065. The basic building blocks of the world are borrowed from the likes of Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell franchise, but the biggest deviations aren’t what you think they are at first glance. Yes, the book is filled to the brim with wonderfully and sincerely written queer characters of just about every color, creed, and identity to an extent that only Ghost in the Shell has toyed with, but there’s just something more to this that I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle.
We start our story in a mostly rural Siberia, where Elena meets Sasha, and then jump to the Amazon rainforest after an explosive prison break. It’s a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment, but in any cyberpunk, post-industrial nightmare you’ve ever heard of…was there ever still undeveloped land? Were there any parts of the world that hadn’t been paved over with concrete, let alone something as delicate and already-dying as the Amazon rainforest? I’m guessing no.
Blade Runner 2049 showed us forms of wilderness and rural areas, yes, but mostly in the form irradiated deserts and dying farmland. For something like the Amazon to even still exist in a world with hyper-population scales and a purely capitalist society isn’t something to be overlooked. It’s a message that lines up perfectly with one of the two main themes of the narrative: it’s not over yet. I don’t want to spoil exactly how deep this runs into the central character arcs and relationships, but let’s just say the inherently cyclical nature of that idea isn’t something that Magdon takes lightly.
The supporting cast of the book are introduced in a rather clever method. It’s something that I’d describe as “Bioware-esque” if it wasn’t so intrinsically tied into the narrative pacing. See, with some older Bioware games—specifically Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age: Origins—the protagonist is dropped into a situation and then chooses what order to recruit the rest of their party. Each quest or mission advances the narrative, regardless of order, and you learn more about a certain aspect of the world as you go.
This inevitably lead to some…strange narrative choices at the behest of player freedom, but here that basic idea is expanded into the context of “putting together a crew” for a heist. Or, rather, reuniting a crew after a job gone bad. Elena is our outsider point of view for the first half of the book, so each introduction to the supporting cast is already thick with complex interpersonal relationships, be it romantic, platonic or familial, with everyone else already belonging to the titular Lucky 7. I recognize it’s not a particularly unique method of introduction, but it’s always the execution that matters, and Magdon does it wonderfully.
Aside from the intentional coloring of the setting to differentiate itself from the pack as I’ve discussed above, this is the most intrinsic aspect of Lucky 7 that makes it work so well. And it’s also what makes the darkness surrounding it feel manageable, almost as if the crew itself is helping the reader cope with the plight and state of the world. The why of “it’s not over yet.” Cyberpunk is a genre that centers obsessively on the lone wolf protagonist. The hard boiled detective gets in over their head, getting shoved into a larger story that rarely has anything to do with them. They either die solving the crime, or get out alive more emotionally broken.
Lucky 7 goes out of its way to show the reader, again and again, that that’s not how this story is going to go. At one point in the book, Sasha reflects that “In this business, lone wolves don’t live long”. This is meant to be in direct contrast to Elena, who has repeatedly declared that she has no intention of bonding with this crew. She’s used to working alone, and she intends to stick to that. But that mentality of hers falls apart piece by piece as she realizes just how empty her life was doing this job alone.
In a world filled with betrayal, uninhibited greed and overwhelming oppression under the mega-corporate boot, a group like the Lucky 7 can still exist and even, to some extent, thrive together. Under a lesser writer, this wouldn’t work. The found family dynamic is a personal favorite of mine, but it’s something that shouldn’t fit within the confines of the cyberpunk genre. It should also go without saying that the corporate concept of “family” being called out like this is especially satisfying.
Not even Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, with its own fleshed out supporting cast, had any intention of connecting the members of Public Security Section 9 as anything other than comrades who could depend on one another. With literally one exception that may or may not be reciprocated (Batou’s feelings for Motoko), that’s all they ever are. Professionals who enjoy working with one another, and protect each other…but the personal relationships were always kept at juuuust enough arm’s length to keep them isolated on a deeper level.
But Magdon managed to make it happen without losing the core of the genre and what makes it so interesting to explore in the first place: the socio-economic structures of the world itself. Sure, the noir aspect was cool and important and it worked seamlessly in the classics, but it wasn’t until reading Lucky 7 that I realized how it may have been more of an expositionary device rather than an intrinsic aspect what defines cyberpunk.
As much as I praise the work Magdon has done here, that shouldn’t be mistaken for believing this to be a perfect story. The first few chapters have a bit of a rocky start to them, but not anywhere near to the point where it stopped me from wanting to see where Magdon went with this.
Her separation between virtual reality and reality is clear, and at times clever, but it’s really the characters that prop up this particular depiction and sell it. As great as those characters are, they can’t cover for everything. It also doesn’t help that the few times I was taken out of the story were due to decisions on Magdon’s part to use questionable language as in-universe slang. Using the words cyberspace, meatspace, and credits unironically in a novel that at no point attempts to dive into nostalgia territory for the classics feels out of place and genuinely confusing. To be frank, it feels antithetical to Magdon’s excellent subversions of other aspects of cyberpunk.
There are a lot of cool concepts brought up during the course of the story that aren’t explored as much as they, in my opinion, could be, and the world itself could use some more fleshing out on quite a few levels. For example, we’re introduced to Mexico City as having a lower-class population large enough to have its own cultural identity, implying that many other megacities have this trait as well. But we barely spend any time exploring that idea, and we don’t spend too much time in any these cities at all. It’s by and large mostly in remote areas that happen to have secret facilities. Again, this is something that the characters, relationships and dialog more than make up for, but it did stick out to me that the root of the cause for the crew’s existence at all, these massive megacities run by megacorps, aren’t as much of a focus.
All of that aside, though, Magdon has created something truly special with Lucky 7. It uproots cyberpunk genre conventions and subverts them masterfully, crafting a narrative where levity and betrayal are equally intrinsic, and the murky grey duplicitous nature of humanity is refracted through a prism, creating a spectrum of morality and color that is just as wide as its queerness.
It’s a world, as you can plainly see, that I want to dive into and learn more about. It’s something I’d love to see expanded upon, and considering how many threads are left untied at the end of the story, I can’t imagine we won’t get a sequel. Or a series. Ideally a series.