Zychtykas Three—Kas—is a broke mecha scholar from offworld. Zhi is a broke mecha fighter and also a broken mech fighter, using whatever she can scrape together to enhance an antique model for modern pit fights. When their lives collide, all manner of sparks start flying, although they have to risk everything to keep those sparks from burning their lives down around them.
Django Wexler is a seasoned veteran of publishing at this point, and his confidence and skill shine in Hard Reboot, a novella out May 25th from Tor.com. The setting is compelling but not overwhelmed with detail, the narrative moves along with plenty of action and character development, and the prose is by turns serious and snarky, as the story demands.
Hard Reboot has any number of clever one-offs and sarcastic observations threaded into the worldbuilding; my favorite example, “Earth’s corrosive datasphere,” is how I’m going to refer to social media from now on. Its narrators, both jaded and half-despairing at their societies’ iniquities, feed that sarcasm without making it feel entirely hopeless. Their individual and combined tenacity is a lovely counterbalance to the dark and gritty realities of their worlds, which stand (as all good sci-fi does) as a critique of our current world.
Kas is a scholar of ancient code, which in her time is something like studying Sumerian or Ugaritic would be for us. She’s passionate about archeocode, but passion matters less than prestige to her advisors. Hereditary status and wealth abound in the academy still, but Kas has neither, and is thus relegated to picking over the scraps of findings that go first to her dumber, richer peers. She just wants her shot, but it took all her meager means to even get assigned to the Old Earth trip—she’s not sure she can combat such entrenched classism.
Zhi doesn’t even have the cushion of arms-length support: she’s a scavenger on the ruins of Old Earth, scrounging for food, unsure if she can get medical care, living on credit and moxie. She’s in danger of being indentured to “the House,” a corporation-like entity that wants her to fight in the arena mecha battles for them. She needs someone to bet on her for a change, and she’s not fussy about how she gets those investments. A heart-of-gold rogue in the vein of Han Solo, she’s quick to fight and quick to give a grin, even when there’s precious little in her slums to smile about.
The ending is a little bit more fairy-tale than hard sci-fi, and call me a sap, but I’m not complaining. Hard Reboot really nailed all of its emotional beats, and I cared a great deal for Kas and Zhi almost immediately. I wanted them to succeed so badly that I almost couldn’t finish the story—so much tension!—but had to, obviously, for the same reason. Fortunately, it stuck the landing, good from the first page to the last. Also, mecha fights! Who would want anything more?