K.A. Bedford,
Hydrogen Steel
(Edge, 2007)

K.A. Bedford is a science-fiction author whose previous novels, Orbital Burn and Eclipse, have earned him considerable kudos in his native Australia. He writes the kind of hard SF that has elevated writers such as Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter and Paul McAuley to the top of the field. But Hydrogen Steel isn't the breakthrough work that's going to rocket Bedford into the upper echelon of space-opera creators.

Hydrogen Steel starts out well enough -- former homicide inspector Zette McGee has been having strange dreams about her past, ones that don't match the history she remembers for herself. Although these dreams are sufficiently disturbing that she has retired from the Winter City Police Service on Ganymede, she finds herself back in investigative mode when a "disposable," the sort of cheaply nanofactured android that has revolutionized human existence, contacts her to claim he's running from a murder for which he's been elaborately framed. The disposable, Kell Fallow, also states that until recently he believed himself to be human.

The situation has tremendous resonance for Zette, who believes that she, too, isn't the person she's always believed herself to be.

When Zette's home in the retirement habitat Serendipity is torched while she's attempting to make contact with Fallow she, somewhat reluctantly, accepts the help of her friend and neighbor Gideon Smith. Smith is a charming former government operative who doesn't talk about his past. But among his bag of tricks -- his "secrets of the mystic east" -- are some systems hacking techniques that come in very handy as Zette begins to unravel the complex web of deceptions that surround the "life" of Kell Fallow and how it relates to the "death" of the Earth.

The real problem with Hydrogen Steel is that Bedford doesn't know when to stop adding layers of technological complexity. And, more importantly, when to stop adding to his protagonists' methods of dealing with each new layer of difficulties. At a certain point the reader's suspension of disbelief begins to falter. And by the point at which Gideon and Zette have essentially died for the second or third time the plot strikes one as simply silly rather than taut and suspenseful. There are also plenty of small inconsistencies that ought to have been ironed out prior to the final draft of the book. At one point, after Gideon and Zette have been reborn into new, younger bodies, Bedford wants to have things both ways -- the new bodies he's provided to his heroes are stronger and more capable but then Zette "hadn't gone a hundred meters before [her] legs were sore and [she] was out of breath. Gideon looked similarly breathless and achy. 'It's the new bodies,' he said."

It's a little thing, and perhaps it's overly picky to complain about it, but there are enough of these sorts of problems with the storyline that, cumulatively, they become a distraction.

Where Bedford succeeds is in his portrayal of a character that is, on the one hand, a tough, street-savvy cop: "I didn't take crap from anybody. ... I chewed on nuts and bolts and spat rivets." On the other hand Zette McGee is easily rattled, doesn't always think straight and is terribly uncertain of her feelings toward Gideon. It's a nicely conflicted bit of character construction and it helps carry the novel through the rougher plotting weaknesses.

In the bio that accompanied this book, the author is quoted as saying he sees himself "as a journeyman writer, more craftsman than artist. I expect to continue learning my craft for the rest of my life, writing continues to be a struggle for me, in more ways than one, and I see that as a good thing." It's a wonderful attitude, and one that bodes well for the future considering that Hydrogen Steel is a decent, but hardly exceptional novel.

review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

17 November 2007

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