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Hydrogen Steel
K.A. Bedford
Edge, 366 pages

Hydrogen Steel
K.A. Bedford
K.A. Bedford was born in Fremantle, Australia, and attended Murdoch University in Perth where he studied writing, theater, and philosophy prior to becoming actively involved with the Australian SF community. He currently lives with his wife, Michelle, near Perth, Australia. He is the author of two previous novels: Orbital Burn and Eclipse, which won the 2005 Aurealis Award for best Australian science fiction novel.

Modem Noise: K.A. Bedford's Blog
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Eclipse
SF Site Review: Orbital Burn
SF Site Review: Orbital Burn

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Retired police Inspector Suzette McGee guards a terrible secret: she's not a real human being, but a disposable. Disposables are androids produced by cheap nanofacture to handle all the jobs that are too dirty, degrading, or brutal for human beings to deal with; they are tools, nothing more, without thoughts or consciousness, programmed for their tasks and recycled once they're no longer useful. Zette has no idea why she's different, or why whoever made her went to the trouble of implanting an entire lifetime's worth of false memories. She's tormented by the question of whether there might be others like her. Or is she unique?

Then she gets a desperate call from Kell Fallow, a man who claims he knows her secret... because he and she were nanofactured in the same lab. He, too, is a disposable programmed to believe he's human, who like Zette has "woken up" to the truth. Falsely accused of the murder of his wife, he's on the run from the law, stowed away in a cargo container on an interstellar transport bound for Zette's retirement habitat. He begs Zette to help him prove his innocence. Before she can agree, the line goes dead. Enlisting the help of her neighbor, Gideon Smith -- an elderly but very well-preserved gentleman with unusual skills and a murky past -- Zette rushes to the spaceport to meet the transport, but she's too late. An attempt to open Kell's cargo container causes it to blow up. Autopsy results reveal that the bomb was Kell himself: his body was implanted with a remote-triggered explosive device.

When Zette tries to return home, she finds her house engulfed in flames. As if that weren't bad enough, the video data collected by her HouseMind reveals that the arsonist is Zette herself -- or rather, a disposable created to look exactly like her and programmed to go berserk. Obviously someone doesn't want her looking into Kell Fallow's death. But Zette isn't easy to intimidate. Determined to discover what's going on, she sets off for the planet where Kell's wife was murdered, again with the assistance of the ever-helpful Gideon, who just happens to have a private ship that he's willing to put at Zette's disposal. It's a quest that will plunge Zette and Gideon into danger and adventure beyond their wildest dreams, uncovering the shocking truth of Zette's identity and exposing a pair of terrifying secrets -- one ancient and one modern, both guarded by a firemind of awesome power: Hydrogen Steel.

Hydrogen Steel is set in the same universe as K.A. Bedford's two previous novels, but at a somewhat later point. The reader doesn't need to be familiar with the earlier books in order to understand the context, but it would certainly add depth, since there's reference to the events of Orbital Burn and Eclipse, and a recurring character, the enigmatic firemind Otaru, plays a major role. As always, Bedford spins a fast-paced, wildly imaginative tale, bouncing his heroes from luxurious orbital habitats to barren backwater planets, from the lonely depths of space to the bizarre alternate dimensions occupied by fireminds, exposing them along the way to a non-stop barrage of perils natural, artificial, and extremely alien. Mysteries unfold only to reveal others, some of which are resolved, such as the long-standing question of whether or not Earth was deliberately destroyed, and some of which are left open, such as the true intentions of the Silent, the aliens whose ships barricade human space. The gritty details are not spared -- for instance, Zette's and Gideon's weeks stuck on Gideon's stranded ship, with food and water recycled from their own waste products and space suits whose ability to deal with human excretions is steadily failing -- nor are the gory ones. Anchoring it all is the wry, no-nonsense first-person voice of the indomitable Zette, who faces danger and hardship with resolve and never loses her sense of humor, no matter how awful the circumstances.

As always, Bedford mixes some serious issues with the adventure -- in this case, the uncomfortable moral and ethical questions posed by disposables, cheaply produced tech that looks and sounds human but is not engineered to have actual consciousness. Yet Zette is conscious, and so is Kell Fallow. How many other disposables have also woken up, but are prevented by their programming from revealing it? Are the uses to which human beings put them slavery? Is their casual disposal, like worn-out tools, actually murder?

The ending is weaker than the rest of the book -- not because of any flaws in logic (most of the loose ends tie up very well), but because of the contrivance of a post-climax plot device that makes it possible for Zette to learn all about a lot of things, including one of the terrifying secrets guarded by the even more terrifying Hydrogen Steel, well after the fact. Bedford puts a smart spin on this (the secret, shocking to Zette who is just learning it, is old and boring news to everyone else, because they've had time to live with it), but it's not quite enough to offset a sense of letdown, as the high drama of Zette's and Gideon's quest is resolved by, essentially, an infodump. Caveats aside, Hydrogen Steel is a rousing good read that should satisfy Bedford's existing fans and win him many new ones.

Copyright © 2007 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Awakened City, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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