Hundreds of years into the future, humanity abandoned Earth and embarked upon an interstellar mission aboard a cluster of ships which eventually became the Fleet. Fleet ships are policed and protected by an elite squad of mechanically-augmented super-soldiers known as Scela, who serve the whims of the Chancellor and enforce her laws (along with a rigid social caste system). Aisha Un-Haad is desperate to provide a good life for her younger siblings, but her deck janitor’s salary isn’t enough to cover her plague-infected brother’s medical bills, so the only option left is to join the Scela. Key Tanaka is a mystery, a near-perfectly blank slate with no idea of who she used to be or why she volunteered for Scela service, but fragments of memory pop up in times of extreme stress, and they seem to indicate that her current identity can’t be trusted. Can these two unlikely partners put aside their differences long enough to save humanity from its own worst instincts?
There aren’t a lot of surprises, plot-wise, in Hullmetal Girls (2018) — once Emily Skrutskie lays out who the players are and what’s at stake, everything follows the expected beats of a dystopian YA sci-fi novel. What livens it up and kept me reading, however, is the depth and breadth of diversity represented by the characters across every possible spectrum of race, gender, creed, and influence. The overwhelming number of important figures are women and some of them, like Aisha’s aunt Yasmin, contain some interesting depth and reasoning for their actions. And the descriptions of body-modification, especially the initial joining of flesh to metal and the subsequent dissonance between personal agency and the Scela hive-mind, often gave me chills.
Aisha and Key aren’t as interesting as their other squad mates, Woojin “Wooj” Lih and Praava Ganes, whose personal histories create all kinds of hurdles for their Scela-integration process. Bringing their perspectives into the narrative would have gone a long way toward creating a more in-depth world, illustrating the challenges faced by Scela who are either too good or not adept at suborning their own identity to their cybernetic programming, and eliminating the sometimes-indistinguishable sound of Aisha and Key’s alternating point-of-view chapters. Moreover, there’s a late-stage big character reveal that really needed more establishment early on in order for its later importance to earn its place as the driving force for that character’s behavior; I kept wondering if there was supposed to be a prologue or a previously-published short story that I should have read in order for that reveal to make sense.
Hullmetal Girls reminded me of elements of other science-fiction novels and video games that I’ve really enjoyed, like Heinlein’s juvenilia (though Skrutskie’s prose is way more female-positive and forward-thinking) and the constantly-moving fleet of Quarian ships in the MASS EFFECT series. Social unrest and divisions in the tightly-controlled and enclosed environment of space are well portrayed, and Aisha’s and Key’s sprint to uncover various truths before they are permanently silenced is certainly gripping in the moment, although I found myself comparing this work to meatier fare in hindsight. Hullmetal Girls was a fun way to spend an afternoon, though, and sometimes that’s all I’m looking for.