The time is finally upon us. The SPSFC has reached the finals, and we have a finalist review here for you today. This one is of Cameron Coral’s Steel Guardian. This book has an SPSFC rating of 7.00 out of 10. Today’s review comes to you courtesy of my fellow judge Ryan.
Lone Wolf and Cub, The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda, Block and a baby he doesn’t realize he should name. A time-honoured tradition is to take your cool protagonist and attach an infant they need to protect.
Of course, there is nothing that says ‘cool protagonist’ about Block, who is a CleanerBot. He excels in the war on grime but that’s about the extent of it. He is nonetheless a very enjoyable protagonist, an underdog not just because he’s a cleaning robot, but because he’s an old, outdated cleaning robot, and a cleaning robot who still has affection for humans. Most robots want humans killed or taken prisoner, and the feeling is mutual. Block is dealing with a variety of problems, and whether he fails or succeeds at any given task, it makes sense given his skill set—no sudden powers, no downloading kung fu.
While sheltering in an old school, Block comes across an IncubatorBot that has been infected with malware, by a human anti-robot division called Hemlock. Before it malfunctions, it gives him an infant, and then the school ends up in a crossfire between SoldierBots and Hemlock. Block escapes, but he suddenly has a baby and has no idea how to take care of it—and even if he did, resources are hard to come by.
(A minor issue: I’m not sure how old this baby is supposed to be. It had just come out of the incubator, but he’s feeding it crackers and water and ibuprofen. There’s a big difference between a newborn and a three-month old, a six-month old, a one-year old.)
Block’s immediate decision is to find it a human to take care of it. He has a test of worthiness to ascertain whether someone would make a fine parent to this baby, including asking them their favorite film, game, and earliest memory. But since humans are pretty scarce, he ends up purchasing a prisoner in the hopes that her maternal instincts will kick in.
Nova, the prisoner in question, is a great character, in that she utterly hates Block, and has no maternal instincts to speak of. She’s pretty pissed at Block’s assumption.
Their dynamic drives the rest of the book. Neither of them trusts the other, and with good cause, but they need to work together. They do a lot of traveling, and Block has heard of a land where humans and robots live in harmony. He convinces Nova to help him get there, despite their shared distrust. Her motives are unclear to him, and her answers to his worthiness test don’t point to a simple sense of ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy.’
His test brings back a lot of his own memories, as his time with humans was largely spent with the hotel manager where he worked. They’d watch movies and play chess. But there’s one memory deep within, this awful guilt that weighs on him. I’ve seen that kind of situation play out before—either he’s forced into an impossible choice, or he’s not quite capable of saving someone, and that guilt still resides. But the actual revelation was much smaller, and all the starker and more brilliant for that.
What should be Block’s greatest liabilities are, in a lot of ways, his greatest assets. The fact that he’s a CleanerBot means that humans are less likely to destroy him just in case—he’s no threat. Had he seemed more threatening, the story would have ended much worse. And as an old model he seems no threat to the robots either. He leverages his weakness into giving him a chance to use diplomacy, and though it’s outside of his realm of expertise, it seems their best hope.
I really enjoyed Steel Guardian. It was a great fun romp with some twists on old tropes.