After being read by its first three judging teams, Steel Guardian entered the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC) finals with the top score in the competition. Between one of my teammates raving about it and it fitting the friendly AI niche that I always have so much fun with, I was very excited for Cameron Coral’s offering.
Steel Guardian takes place in an America thrown into turmoil by a brutal war between humans and AIs. But Block never fit comfortably into either camp. As a cleaning bot, he is scorned by his militaristic brethren, and his friendly relationship with his human owner before the war made it hard for him to generate much antipathy towards humanity. So he wanders the Midwest, trying to survive–and to find an intact hotel to clean. That is, until he unexpectedly finds himself with a human baby, the possession of which draws unwanted attention from both sides of the conflict. He just wants to find it a suitable home so that he can go back to cleaning in peace. But in the middle of a war, with no one to trust on either side, finding a trustworthy caregiver is easier said than done.
Steel Guardian follows a plot that will be familiar to those who enjoy stories of ordinary people trying to survive after societal upheaval. An eclectic group finds themselves traveling together, seeking some rumored place of safety, with countless dangers to avoid before it can be reached. But while it’s not necessarily blazing new territory, it’s an entertaining example of the subgenre. The smooth, unobtrusive prose helps the pages melt away in no time, and the inevitable new dangers punctuating the story at regular intervals provide constant encouragement to read just one more chapter.
But this sort of story always stands and falls on how well the reader invests in the characters and their quest for survival and safety, and I struggled to get a handle on Block. There’s clearly meant to be character progression from naive AI to empathetic person who can build relationships with humans, but it sometimes feels as though his abilities and shortcomings are chosen haphazardly to emphasize either his naivete or his machinehood. For example, he’s able to run complex simulations that yield survival odds of various scenarios to four significant figures, but he makes absurd generalizations based on the one good-hearted human he knew, and his limited experience as a cleaning bot means he’s unaware of basic human objects, like diapers. It’s an odd mix, and it muddies the character progression. For any new action, it’s hard to tell whether it’s within Block’s capabilities or not until we’re told by the narrative. And because a person’s limitations play such a huge role in their emotional development, the lack of clarity about what Block can do contributes to lack of clarity about what he feels in a given situation. So while there are some tender character moments, the overall progression is hard to grasp.
Other reviews have indicated that not everyone shares my confusion about the lead, and I suspect that if Block works for you, the rest of the book will too. His odd couple relationship with an unwilling traveling companion does show real progress and delivers quite a few quality interactions. And while I wouldn’t say there were a lot of shocking plot twists, there was enough danger to keep the excitement high, and the action sequences came off smoothly. I was frustrated that one element that was foreshadowed very early in the book was left entirely to the sequel, but the first book does offer some payoff of its own, and readers who are quick to progress through series will be less put off by major plot threads left dangling.
Overall, my problems with the lead kept me from really getting into this one, but it’s an easy read that I still managed to enjoy in significant part, even despite my confusion about the main character arc.
Recommended if you like: post-apocalyptic odd couple road trips.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s a Self-Published book with a Non-Human Protagonist, Family Matters, a Revolution or Rebellion, and No Ifs Ands Or Buts in the title. If it doesn’t win SPSFC, it will be hard mode for Award Finalist.
Overall rating: 11 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.
SPSFC score: 5.5/10 for my personal score. We will await results from the other judges before announcing an official team score.