Payback City by John Barnes (eBook)

Payback City, John Barnes's previously unpublished thriller, as an ebook

Written in 1997, unpublished for political reasons, a high-speed high adventure thriller by the author of MOTHER OF STORMS and A MILLION OPEN DOORS

First of all, I am the John Barnes who wrote Mother of Storms, Orbital Resonance, A Million Open Doors, and many other science fiction books. You can find my commercially published paper books on my Amazon profile at

In 1997 I contracted with a British publisher to deliver a thriller titled Payback City about a terrorist attack on an American city, conducted by forces from an Islamic country, with the intent to kill a spectacular number of innocent people. By the time I finished it, the publishers had been acquired by a larger firm that ordered them to trim the list, so they let me keep the signing money (though they suggested I should give them my next science fiction novel free), but stiffed me on the delivery money. In December 1997 I finished another version of Payback City, aimed at the American market, which my agent was unable to sell in the next few years for reasons more political than literary, and then on September 11, 2001, the whole thing became obsolete.

Or so I thought.

As many of you know, in recent months I've been excavating my way through literally tons of saved notes, manuscripts, and various papers, the saved material of half a career (figuring that I have been at this professionally for about 25 years and have about 25 to go). While I was doing that I found my old boxes of research for Payback City, and asked, "Wonder whether the poor old thing was ever any good? Jeez, it's been ten years."

To my pleasant surprise, it was one of the better books I wrote in those years; many of the reasons why it didn't sell, once I opened up my file of saved rejections and read through it with a cold eye, were purely political. The book flew into the face of the conventional wisdom of the time, suggesting that the United States was in danger of attack on its own soil by terrorists originating in the Arab Muslim world.

If I worked for a publisher's marketing department I'd say Payback City was "eerily prescient," and I'd be lying. The attackers from my imaginary Maghrebi Republic are not al-Qaeda either literally or figuratively; the motives and methods are different; the Americans coping with the attack and responding to the crisis are not anything like Bush or Rumsfeld. Payback City recounts an imagined terror attack of 1997, not the world we all live in.

Is it then just alternate history, a might have been that now never will be?

Perhaps. But once I had read it, and found myself smiling and sometimes patting myself on the back, thinking, Yeah, I did what I wanted to do right there, didn't I?, I began to make some notes about what had changed, for better and worse; and the notes grew into a mix of self-assessment, political polemic, thoughts about literature, and, well, about a 14,000 word rant, on the then-and-now. Additionally, I've worked many times as a book doctor and editor in the intervening years, and a host of small fixes itched to be made. Almost before I knew it, I had the New and Improved for 2007 Payback City, with a brand new introduction covering literature, politics, publishing history, and pretty near anything else I felt like ranting about.

It wouldn't have been possible to completely rewrite the book for the present, and I didn't try to do that; I polished what was there, and in a spirit of fairness I left some of my biggest wrong guesses lying there for you to find (and I didn't retroactively install any right ones, though I was sorely tempted).

But never mind all that.

You can skip that introduction if you like, and if you care about spoilers, you shouldn't read it till you've read the novel. There's still a great deal of stuff blowing up, races against time, derring-do being derring-done, and so on. There's a villain who I think is frankly way, way cooler than the ones the news gives us. There's a bunch of heroes (likely and un-), and a great deal about how scientific arson investigations are conducted, and a pretty in-depth view of the mean streets of Detroit. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll learn about how buildings are torched and how torches are caught, and you'll have a good time.

But if you do get curious about why I decided to drag the poor old thing back from its untimely grave, about what I think now as opposed to what I thought then, there's a 14,000 word intro – absolutely crawling with spoilers, so you might want to read the book first. And if you're the sort of political junkie who really only reads thrillers for their politics, well, there's 14,000 words there to straighten you out.

The book is in unlocked pdf format; you can reformat to whatever way you feel makes for the most comfortable reading, but as delivered, it's set up to look like a printed book with two book-style pages per 8 1/2" x 11" sheet. If you print out the file as is on 8 1/2" x 11" (American letter format) typing paper, and bind it along the top 11" side you'll get a comfortably readable text on 211 sheets (that is, as long and wide as a stack of typing paper, with two pages to a sheet; it will be about as thick as a 422 page regular paper book if you print it one-sided).

Access is deliberately fairly open because I want people to read it, so it please do share a copy with a friend, but please point out the note on the front sheet to them. I'm hanging onto more than enough rights to control outright theft in quantity if I have to, and I'd love for this to be so popular that I had to. If you enjoy it (or hate it) enough to blog about it, please point people to one of the places where they can buy it!

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