In Django Wexler’s Hard Reboot, come for the massive war-machine mechas that are unearthed from the debris of Earth’s empire’s past and made to fight one another, stay for the discussion of wealth inequality, the dismantling of hierarchy and capitalism, and a sweet story of two women falling for one another in a world that’s been left behind.
Kas is a third-generation scholar in the far reaches of the galaxy, amongst one of the many planets that humanity has learned to call home after fleeing Earth and its catastrophes. A researcher into old Earth and the technological remains of its many fallen empires, Kas has earned her way aboard this trip back to the planet her and her ancestors sprang from, looking for the chance to not just learn more of her chosen field, but use that research to propel herself into the upper echelon of her cohort and colleagues. But when she watches a local fight, where Earth-bound pilots fight in salvaged war-mechas from empires past, Kas gets roped into the path of Zhi Zero, one of those pilots, who tricks her into putting far too much of her academy’s money on the line. As Kas goes into debt with the House, who runs the fights like a massive criminal organization, and Zhi’s debt with that same organization comes due, the two will have to work together to come out on top or be buried like everything else on Earth.
From the outset, Wexler does fast, smart work to help readers feel rooted in the struggles of both our protagonists, regardless of where they come from. Kas may have privilege from her upbringing between the stars but even among her fellow scholars, she’s looked down upon for being among the last generation to leave Earth. Due to circumstances entirely out of her control, she’s still viewed as inferior and subject to ridicule, having to work twice as hard as someone among the noble generation of pioneers who left Earth first, whose descendants are glorified for the supposed valor of their ancestors braving the dark before anyone else. And on Earth, Zhi is fighting desperately for any scrap of anything she can call her own. The House owns everything and controls everyone; anyone who isn’t part of their roster soon will be, thanks to a combination of danger, harm, and threat. Zhi has barely stayed one step ahead of them, thanks to her engineering skills and quick mind, tricking people like Kas into spending money on her to keep afloat. But there is little safety in such things, and as Zhi’s debt comes due, she must work with Kas if they’re going to survive.
Wexler is a world-class wordbuilder and with quick, effective work paints a bleak future for the once-cradle of humanity. Generations of empire litter the future in more ways than one. Scattered war machines like the mechas rot in the ground, scavenged for parts and tech, while in the atmosphere debris of wars past orbit the planet like a funeral shroud. Barely seen but always felt, too, are the corrosive storms of malware and toxic data, unleashed like a plague and deadly to anyone like Kas who has built-in tech and must navigate Earth without it, lest she open herself to mind-destroying viruses. As their two worlds collide, Wexler creates tension in every shared breath as these two women must come to trust one another, even as they can barely understand each other.
But such is the strength of Wexler’s work; while the worldbuilding is top-notch, it’s the characters that truly shine. Kas and Zhi are engaging and complex, and with very little reason to ever trust each other, they’re forced to work together, merging Kas’s understanding of old empire tech with Zhi’s engineering brilliance to bring a Third Empire mecha back to life, their one chance to get out of debt and bring down the system that has ensnared them both. Wexler doesn’t rush the feelings that kindle between them, nor the love that begins to spark toward the end of this story, and even in a novella format, takes the time for these two women to open up to one another and understand each other’s circumstances, slowly lowering their walls and chipping away at the hard exteriors they’ve had to cultivate to survive in their respective lives. As they both begin to understand the system that’s trapping them both, Kas and Zhi come together, and Wexler delivers in both romance and solidarity as the two put their plan in action to bring it all down.
While I’m used to the sprawling, epic fantasy work of Django Wexler, I had so much fun seeing him flex his skills in a shorter format. Hard Reboot is a must-read for anyone looking for not just great science fiction, but for a hard-hitting examination of brutal systems that value currency and status over people and a thrilling romance between two women from opposite corners of the galaxy finding one another. If you’re looking for that thrill of big robots punching one another alongside discussions of how to build a better world, then go pick up Hard Reboot as fast as you can, and enjoy.
Hard Reboot is available from Tordotcom Publishing.
Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has fiction work forthcoming in 2021 at Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F Blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and his new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, gaming, and other wonderfully nerdy whatnots.