Space Opera Sunday: Steel Frame

Book cover: Steel Frame - Andrew SkinnerRook has a choice: volunteer for hazardous duty or stay on the chain gang. It’s no choice at all. But deep in Open Waters, something ancient and hungry is stirring. If Rook can’t stop it, death is coming for everyone.

Steel Frame is the impressively entertaining, unexpectedly heart-wrenching debut of South African author Andrew Skinner: a stand-alone deep space opera of alien artefacts and giant combat robots against a dystopian backdrop of ruthless frontier corporations.

Steel Frame ticks so many of my boxes it was always going to be a strong contender for stealing my heart in SciFiMonth. Let’s face it, the elevator pitch is effectively Battlestar Galactica meets Pacific Rim with robot zombies. Sure, it’s arguably military SF, which isn’t my jam, but throw in an emotionally-scarred heroine, an ancient battle mech half a step from the junkyard and a mysterious space storm full of inexplicable technology and it didn’t so much have me at hello as wondering who had let themselves in and made popcorn for me.

Rook was search and rescue, wired to wade in where the trouble was thickest when jockeys were down. When she was court martialled after the death of her unit, she gave up hope of flying again. But the Nor Collective corporation can’t afford to be picky this far into deep space: when it needs to replace bodies, convicts will do.

No sooner is Rook cut free of her chains than she’s dropped into trouble. An ancient shell (as the giant robots are called) has gone haywire. The Juno is a rare example of an early prototype for giving the war-machines consciousness, generally considered too dangerous to keep flying without an exceptional jockey to keep it in check. But the Juno’s jockey is dead, and now it’s on the rampage.

…you can see where this is going, right? You’re not wrong. For all its high-octane, military SF trappings, Steel Frame is at heart a tale of two wounded souls forging a connection and healing one another. I fell head over heels for the Juno before the end of its first scene; thankfully, so does Rook. The success of any shell/jockey team comes down to whether they are Drift compatible how strong a pilot-sync they can maintain. Rook and the Juno are off the charts, testing the artificially-imposed limiters that are meant to stop a jockey losing herself in her shell. No way is she letting it get broken down for scrap.

Set up complete, Steel Frame cracks on with its plot. NorCol’s dreadnought, the Horizon, is in orbit around an alien object known as the Eye. If NorCol can figure out what on earth the Eye – or any of the other inexplicable phenomena around it – really is, there must be some advantage to be gained. Rook is sent out under command of no-nonsense commander Hail to investigate a mysterious building on a nearby asteroid.

Out here beyond the Colonial Authority’s reach, the corporations are effectively at war, scrapping over every inch of sky. The team aren’t the first to land here, but their rivals are all dead. Or rather, the jockeys are. The surviving shells are ‘hollow’ (flying solo with a dead pilot), the usual safeguards shattered. When Rook finds the words DON’T LET THEM TOUCH YOU scrawled on a crumbling wall, the stage is set for a robocalypse. Is the Horizon strong enough to see off the threat that has already downed its biggest rival?

Braced for a dystopian corporate war story, I didn’t have time to be nonplussed by the pivot to military space horror, because I was too busy getting creeped out. Andrew Skinner is a dab hand at atmosphere, and each scene leapt to spooky life in my head, from greasy crawlspaces to sand-swept tombs.

It’s not quite equal opportunities, but nobody aboard the Horizon cares where you were born, what colour your skin is, what gender you happen to be or who you’d prefer to sleep with (although Steel Frame has no room for romance – Rook and the Juno are the only relationship on stage). Outside its shields, the storm-tossed skies are a menace of clouds and violence, humanity’s ships offering tiny refuges that feel increasingly insufficient against the threat at hand.

Steel Frame is relentlessly cinematic, leaning into familiar tropes to deliver thrills and gut punches with aplomb. There are shades of BSG in the tensions between pilots and knuckledraggers that play out in segregated mess tables and hangar politics. A key scene near the end had shades of Serenity flying through Reaver space (as if I weren’t nervous enough by that point). The Pacific Rim vibe is inescapable if arguably misleading – the Drift here is between a single human and their machine.

And it’s on that one to one level – the connection between Rook and the Juno – that Steel Frame worked best for me. Rook’s affectionate asides to her ‘old bird’; the Juno’s habit of checking all Rook’s vitals whenever she comes in view (yes, fine, it’s sensible programming, but it reads as caring and I’ll happily anthropomorphise, thank you). While I appreciated Rook’s bond with the other humans on her team (and hey, I’ve not even talked about how much I love Hail, or the casually-drawn but reassuringly solid Salt), it’s the bond with the Juno that gives Steel Frame wings.

An excellent debut from an author I’ll be watching out for in future.


I received a free copy from Rebellion Publishing in exchange for an honest review.