Titanborn, a future noir tale, follows “collector” Malcolm Graves as he travels around the solar system in the year 2334, resolving problems for his employer in a largely permanent and deadly way. As a collector, Malcolm is a combination of an investigator, bounty hunter and hired gun for Pervenio Corporation, one of the huge corporations that now effectively control Earth’s solar system. Malcolm, who’s a veteran of thirty years in the business, travels around taking care of problems like workers’ rebellions and incipient revolutions ― usually by assassinating the people causing trouble, with little care for anything but getting the job done.
Three hundred years before, in 2034, a huge meteorite nearly wiped all life off the Earth. Since then, the surviving members of the human race have reached out to other planets and even the stars, sending arks on one-way trips to other star systems. One group, knowing of the meteorite strike to come, left Earth and settled on Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. When their descendants reconnected with the rest of humanity nearly three hundred years later, the Titanborn people not only looked and acted differently from other humans, but also lacked immunity to diseases that Earthborn humans carried with them. As many deathly ill Titanborn are crammed into squalid quarantine areas, the rest of their people grow resentful and restive at being treated as second-class citizens.
In Malcolm’s last job, a few too many people died as he was solving a work shutdown on an asteroid, and now Malcolm has been forced on an unpaid and unwanted vacation. So when a terrorist bombing occurs right where he is taking his enforced rest, it looks like a golden chance for Malcolm to prove to his employers that he’s still on top of his game. It’s especially handy that he just happened to meet the suspected bomber, a Titanborn, in a bar just before the bomb went off. So Malcolm is given the job of chasing down the culprit, with a huge payoff at stake. Though he always works alone, his boss insists that in this case he needs to work with a young and oddly robotic partner who is part of Pervenio Corp’s Cogent Initiative, a secret training program for upcoming collectors. The resentful Malcolm and his extremely capable but socially inept partner Zhaff are off on the chase, trying to stay ahead of others so they can collect the bounty for capturing the bomber alive.
Titanborn is a genre story in the noir vein, with a hard-bitten, cynical protagonist, a fast pace that rarely lets up, lots of action, and a high body count. At the same time, it deals with universal issues: greed, racism, isolation, and even love. Corporate greed is a major theme, aided and abetted by a highly individualistic and extremely flawed protagonist, who is motivated solely by personal gain and the desire to live life in his own way, without interference. But there is moral ambiguity on both sides: while the Titanborn are understandably desperate and angry, they’ve resorted to murder and terrorist acts to achieve their goals.
The mystery element in Titanborn is serviceable, if not particularly deep or surprising. Rhett Bruno doesn’t try to hide the responsibility of the Titanborn for the bombing, but there are other elements of that plot that remain obscure until much later in the story. In the first chapter, Malcolm states:
In a little over two months’ time, I, Malcolm Graves, would help spark a revolution. I didn’t know it at the time.
But it’s not clear when or how that will happen, or whether it will be through deliberate or inadvertent action ― or inaction ― on Malcolm’s part. I spent most of the novel waiting for the other shoe to drop. And drop it does, although not precisely in the way I had expected. The ending is likely to surprise readers.
Although Malcolm is a hardened loner who doesn’t want to take instructions from or work with anyone, he is haunted by his broken relationship with his illegal daughter Aria, whom he tried to train as another collector before she rebelled against his lifestyle and disappeared. Malcolm is also humanized by his relationship with Zhaff, which slowly thaws over the course of their investigation. While that’s a foreseeable development, a variant on the buddy cop tales, Zhaff slowly becomes an intriguing and unusual character in his own right. He initially seems like a cyborg, but his actual background is much more human, complex and sympathetic. Malcolm’s developing partnership with Zhaff is put to the test as they get closer to solving the mystery.
At times Titanborn is reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s novelette We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, which inspired the Total Recall movies, as well as Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the basis for the Blade Runner film. It’s a quick and entertaining read, if occasionally predictable. I recommend it for readers who will enjoy a cynical, tough detective type of story in a science fiction setting.