Humanity spread out to the stars, abandoning our dying home world in waves. But Earth endured. Now it attracts scholars of ancient history and dilettantes seeking the violent delights only found on toxic backwaters. But the pit fights of the House hold danger for everyone in and out of the ring….
Going to Earth sucks. It’s a rollercoaster drop thanks to all the orbital debris and the aether is humming with intrusive advertising and aggressive malware that rules out connecting to its networks. It’s backwards and brutal, but if Kas wants to prove herself to the Scholarium with groundbreaking research on archaeocode, Earth is the only place to go. Earthborn scavenger and warbot pilot Zhi needs one good win in the ring to pay her debts and keep clear of indenture to the House. When she tricks Kas into a bet neither of them can afford to lose, both have everything to play for.
It’s been over a thousand years – and many empires – since humanity fled the planet in waves as technology opened doors for ever more people to get off-planet. Those who left turned their back; Earth is a hardscrabble world of limited opportunities and low life expectancy, where you have to guess what other people like (no networks means no broadcasting your preferences) and where the most likely outcome is death in its dark tunnels.
Life is easier – and longer – on other worlds, where basic income and anti-ageing come as standard and darker urges are played out in sims. Kas’s opportunities are determined by her descent from third wave immigrants, not early adopters who took great risks to get in first or the wealthy second wave who bought their way onto new worlds. A millennium has entrenched the privilege of getting in first. Zhi is quite rightly scathing of soft, rich offworlders; from her perspective of dodging death on a daily basis, the social inequities Kas struggles with are first world problems.
It sounds like a lot of world-building, but Wexler deftly establishes it as he goes rather than derailing the action with exposition. The result – as in the best novellas – is a universe that feels greater than the sum of its parts and in which any number of intriguing tales could be told. The characters likewise leap off the page with minimal encouragement, engaging if not particularly nuanced.
The result is a fast-paced, light touch SFnal romance with a side of robots punching robots that owes more to Real Steel than Pacific Rim. That’s not a bad thing – I love Real Steel, in spite of its poor script and waste of Evangeline Lilly – and if you’re looking for a quick shot of predictable feel-good drama where giant robots smash ten bells out of one another, it’s an easy afternoon. Switch out the father/son drama for two mismatched young women attracted to one another in spite of their prejudices and Hard Reboot is hard not to like too.
My problem with Hard Reboot – and yes, I’ve got one, and it’s not fair on Django Wexler or the novella itself so bear with me – is that the publisher blurb sold me on old Earth politics and intergalactic diplomacy, neither of which actually feature. At all. Look, I used to work in marketing – I know all about spin, but this is egregious. It’s a big fucking stretch to frame two people from different planets overcoming their biases to work together as “intergalactic diplomacy”. It’s an even bigger stretch to call the machinations of the House “old Earth politics” – they are trying to manipulate an individual (Zhi) into slavery, not influence governments.
If you’re expecting no more than a meetcute at the robot pit fights, Hard Reboot is an entertaining tale in an intriguing setting, packaged for casual consumption. I found it a little sketchy (as in light on detail, not dodgy) in defining the House’s motivations – they’re just a nebulous criminal corporate antagonist – and in the details of Zhi’s plan to extricate herself, but I was happy to handwave this all away and just enjoy the fun.
So ignore that blurb and settle in for a popcorn read – you’ll be a much happier reader than I was.