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Steeldriver
Don DeBrandt
Ace Books, 330 pages

Steeldriver
Don DeBrandt
Don DeBrandt lives in Vancouver, BC. His freelance comic work has included Spiderman 2099 and 2099 Unlimited for Marvel Comics. His first published story, "Payback Tattoo," appeared in Pulphouse magazine. His first novel, The Quicksilver Screen, was published by Del Rey.

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A review by Jean-Louis Trudel

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When academics refer to science fiction as the mythology of the modern age, they have stories like this in mind. The science fictional accouterments of Steeldriver are nicely worked out, but they're mostly peripheral to the mythic dimension of the main characters.

Jonathan Hundred is a cyborg on the lam. By overcoming his programming, he's robbed the multi-planetary corporation that used to own him. On the planet Pellay, he attempts to pass as one of the steeldrivers working on a tunnel being dug through a large mountain, but it's not so easy to go unnoticed when you're eight feet tall and your skin is a dark shade of blue. In fact, it's going to be just about impossible to avoid attention if you keep performing feats of incredible strength and outworking everybody in sight as you handle one-ton pieces of rock...

Worse, Jon Hundred is stolen property, but to steal himself, he's had to block his memory. Will he even be able to recognize his enemies when they track him down? In the meantime, he has come to feel comradeship for the Toolies, an alien race used by humans to perform menial work. Like most of the steeldrivers, like the actors playing roles for tourists in the company town which doubles as an ersatz Far West Boomtown, the Toolies are essentially contractual slaves. To buy the freedom of the Toolies, Jon Hundred bets with the AI boring the tunnel from the other side of the mountain that his co-workers can get their side done first. However, this simple wager is soon complicated by the intervention of agents of the corporation that used to own Jon. And by the fact that Jon is falling is love with his AI opponent!

DeBrandt glories in assembling a gallery of vivid characters and in generating occasions for Jon Hundred to show off his strength. He spices up the action with some fine instances of tall tales. The reproductive mechanism of the Toolies is weird enough, so too is their ability to incorporate bones and tools within their own bodies. The stories DeBrandt draws from that are worth the price of the book alone.

The feats of strength of Jon Hundred hark back to those of other strong men throughout the history of Western storytelling, from Hercules and Samson down to the Bionic Man. Jon is especially reminiscent of the legendary working men on the American frontier, like the mythical Paul Bunyan in the U.S. or the real Jos Montferrand in Canada.

Of necessity, Don DeBrandt treads a fine line, appealing to the universal love of the tall tale but working hard to avoid turning his characters into caricatures. In fact, he draws upon more than a few motifs of the American West, shaping part of the novel to point to a climactic battle as in all the stories of the good-hearted fugitive facing the evil lawman in the empty streets. Jon's love affair with an AI, as well as the general ambience of comradely toughness and bloody-mindedness, recalls more than a few of Heinlein's settings. DeBrandt even throws in a Christian allusion or two. In the end, however, Steeldriver is more than a homage to Heinleinesque SF, or to those writers of yore enamoured of the Western mythos. The story closes with a true cybernetic deliverance -- and the promise of a fight to the finish with the evil corporations.

DeBrandt is not a tight plotter. Characters are introduced helter-skelter, as required for the story, and one must be patient with the author's digressions. But he is a neat plotter: most of the loose ends are tied up and the motives of the main protagonists mesh together cleanly to produce the denouement. The humour is at times low, but it is rarely forced.

On the whole, Steeldriver is, as the saying goes, an entertaining yarn, and an especially satisfying one for those readers who grew up with Heinlein.

These last few years, it sometimes seems as if new Canadian writers have been gleefully rediscovering the simpler joys of science fiction. Authors like Robert J. Sawyer, Marian Hughes, James Allan Gardner or Julie Czerneda have been going back to basics. Steeldriver also tends to offer the delights of yesterday's science fiction, without forgetting to include some of the ideas of today. Call it intelligent science fiction, call it good storytelling... call it fun.

Copyright © 1998 by Jean-Louis Trudel

Jean-Louis Trudel is a busy, bilingual writer from Canada, with two novels and fourteen young adult books to his credit in French. He's also a moderately prolific reviewer and short story writer.


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