Jon Hundred was a steel driving man. Well sort of. He looks and acts like a man and vaguely remembers being a man, but now he is a cyborg. He is man-shaped but 8 feet tall, 80 percent machinery covered with skin tinted a deep blue. Jon Hundred's Hammer is a tiny bit of extremely dense material taken from the heart of a star. He keeps it wrapped in a variable force field and leaves the package in orbit around the planet on which he lives and works.
Like all men, Jon has secrets which he keeps from his fellow workers. He is on the run the Interstellar Ops corporation, the company which imprisoned and cyborged him, and the true owners of the Hammer. He lives with the fear of discovery and probable death at the hands of corporate enforcers. Jon even has a secret which he keeps from himself. The memory of who and what he was before he became a cyborg is denied him.
Somewhere in his brain is his identity and the reason he was imprisoned. Jon decides to hide in plain sight, hiring on with a construction company and using his massive body to do the work of 10 ordinary men. He leads a team charged with digging a tunnel through a huge mountain on the planet Pellay. A chance remark leads to a challenge: can Jon and his crew dig through their half of the mountain before a crew lead by an Artificial Intelligence can dig through theirs? Soon bets are being placed by everyone in the colony in the battle of man versus machine. Even the very alien Toolies make a wager. They place everything they have on Jon in an attempt to make enough money to buy their way out of servitude and start a colony of their own. The Toolies are a very odd bunch. They are large, amorphous lumps of flesh with the ability to ingest foreign materials and use these materials to shape skeletons as necessary for the jobs they must perform.
Some of the Toolies even ingest video screens to communicate with their human masters. The Toolie colony is made up entirely of females. Male Toolies are so dangerous they are killed as they are born and Toolie mating is strictly regulated. (Toolie is a racial slur, by the way: they prefer the name Insussklik, but of course none of the humans bother to learn that name.) Of course Jon's work prowess is noticed by those who have more sinister interests.
Soon an enforcer from Interstellar Ops headquarters is dispatched with orders to retrieve company property. Jon is warned the enforcer is coming but he doesn't run. His sense of loyalty, honesty, responsibility and whatever else that makes him human will not allow him to abandon his friends. Of course Steeldriver is based on the legend of Jon Henry, the steel driver who raced against a machine to lay railroad tracks. DeBrandt takes the legend and extrapolates it to a new era and a new frontier. In Steeldriver, Jon Hundred spends much too much time feeling sorry for himself, a fact which does not go unnoticed by his fellow characters. I suppose this was DeBrandt's device to show us the depths of Hundred's despair. He feels he must prove himself human long after his friends have accepted him.
Okay, the big question: did I enjoy Steeldriver? Yes. Why? I found myself interested in Jon and just why someone might punish him by making him a cyborg. Although I knew the novel's probable outcome long before I reached the end, I kept hoping DeBrandt would give us a happy ending, which he does, of sorts. He resorts to a deus ex machina, but, to be fair, he hinted the mechanism was available. I think you will find Steeldriver to be an enjoyable novel.
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