Space Monkey Press
There’s a lot of generic, tropey stories in the science-fiction genre today. A lot of novels with covers that have spaceships exploding in the background, a space marine with a suitably chiselled chin and mournful, determined look on his face in the foreground. A lot of novels with generic, predictable plots about alien invasions being faced by the last remnants of humanity, or uprisings by genocidal AIs, or a side-lined officer taking command of a battleship or carrier (usually with a suspiciously Confederate-sounding name) to take the fight to some corrupt, central government. It’s all very apocalyptic with incredibly high stakes that only escalate with every novel in the series – and to be honest they all tend to blur together into one indistinguishable mass. As such, I tend to avoid a lot of the sci-fi genre, focusing more on horror, crime and historical fiction, and it generally tends to take something pretty unique and engaging to get me to take more than a glancing look at a science-fiction novel these days. And that’s exactly what I got when I came across the cover art for Eric Kruger’s latest novel Hauler – something unique and unexpected. Instead of spaceships and explosions and aliens, I got – well, I got a truck. True, it was a fancy sci-fi-looking truck, with glossy colours and rounded contours, the futuristic nature of it confirmed by the towering, space-age buildings behind it. And it was a beautifully composed and crafted cover, deftly executed by Bryan Vectorartist with some fantastic colour choices. But it was still, at the end of the day, a truck. And that intrigued me sufficiently to get me to read the back-cover blurb, which served to make me even more interested – enough to accept the offer of a review copy from the author. In the standard near-future dystopia common to the genre, the nation-state has fallen to the megacorporation, and Earth and Mars have been fully privatized; crime is rampant, and the worst offenders are sent to the Red Planet to aid in terraforming the world. Benjamin Drake is a simple, honest trucker earning an uncomplicated living until a run of bad luck leads to him becoming embroiled in a vicious conflict between a mining company and a private security force. Carrying stolen cargo and lacking in friends, his only chance appears to be an uneasy alliance with a security officer looking to get her career back on track. It all sounded pretty interesting, and quite far from the usual plots found in sci-fi titles these days, so I decided to start reading and see what Kruger had in store for me.
When we meet Benjamin Drake for the first time, things aren’t going well for him: he’s just turned up late to his depot and missed a job that would have tided him over for another month or so, he’s low on hydrogen fuel for his hauler, and his food supplies are running low as well. He’s scraping the barrel as things go – and they’re about to get a whole lot worse. Desperate for funds he reluctantly takes a job from Johnny Something, local gangster and generally unreliable and double-crossing rat, for an amount of money that is both unbelievable and also surely illegal. Struggling to make his ethics match with his financial needs, Drake soon discovers that the cargo he’s hauling is incredibly dangerous, and Johnny Something is wanted for a laundry list of crimes. From there things slowly but surely escalate, as Drake finds himself on the run from multiple corporations and with almost no-one he can trust to be on his side, as a complex conspiracy rapidly begins to unfold around him that sees an ambitious CEO attempt to completely overturn the stranglehold on space and the solar system that the major corporations hold. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he has to deal with the complex relationship he’s developing with Johnny Something, who views him as something akin to the brother he never had; and a security officer determined to climb the greasy pole of career advancement has him in her sights and refuses to stop pursuing him no matter what he does to try and escape. All the man wanted to do was haul cargo and earn a few credits – and now the fate of an entire planet may unintentionally hinge on his remaining out of corporate prison.
One of the biggest things I like about Hauler is the fact that it’s a slice of dystopian science-fiction that for once focuses on an average person living in that future, rather than some unique and highly-capable individual. Benjamin Drake isn’t some corporate assassin with toxin-tipped blades incorporated into his wrist-bones, or an elite hacker able to take down a security network in under eight seconds, or even someone like V from Cyberpunk 2077 who regularly fights against megacorporations and their lackeys. He’s just your average cargo hauler trying to get through his day as easily as possible; sure, he hovers in a morally grey zone most of the time, bending the rules and committing petty crimes like getting drunk and starting a barfight, but for the most part he’s just another anonymous cog in the megacorporate machine. It makes him far more relatable and engaging than someone like V, and subsequently a lot easier to sympathize with and mesh with as a reader. Ultimately, this all makes Hauler far more interesting of a science-fiction novel than most other dystopian fiction that I’ve come across – because Kruger deftly gets across that for Drake, losing his hauler and going on the run from the authorities will quite literally end his life – he doesn’t have any inherent skillset that will allow him to survive in another part of the dystopian system if he so chooses, or his hand is forced. Drake isn’t your usual generic dystopian protagonist – he just wants to keep his head down and keep working hauling cargo across the planet, and that it turns makes Hauler clearly stand out from the vast crowd of stories found in the dystopian scifi sub-genre.
Alongside that, the world-building is subtle and elegantly put together, naturally developing as the story progresses and we see more of how Drake operates and the cargo hauling system he’s a tiny part of in this near-future scenario. Some things are still familiar – there’s a bed behind the cab, Drake scrapes a living from job to job, and there are the ever-present dingy bars to drink and occasionally fight in; but the dystopian future adds some unsettling elements as well, like the subdermal Human Interface Console (HIC) Drake uses to operate his truck, and which also shows his credit score, ID, and even any outstanding warrants for his arrest. In addition, most vehicles don’t even have drivers these days, and most people don’t know how to drive anymore because the megacorporations have removed their need to have that skillset. Haulers like Drake only have roles thanks to union pressure ensuring trucks carrying cargo have a human operator for safety reasons – and it seems like even that might be removed before too long. Kruger brings us into a world where hyperloops are a common-place system of transportation, supported by a highway system essentially only used for cargo haulers, and poorly-maintained back roads used by workers and those who can’t afford anything else. Food is now simply nutritious but bland ‘white box’ meals that keep you under the corporate thumb unless you have unlimited funds for something with actual taste, and the Earth has become so poisoned that growing your own food is something only done by the truly desperate. Most people live in company cities like New Franco that lures people in with promises of jobs and houses, only for the revelation that the jobs are poorly paid maintenance roles servicing machines, and the houses are little more than slums. It’s a depressing reality, and one that seems all too likely to occur in our own reality – and the corporate waivers that appear on your windscreen when entering new corporate territory, forcing you to sign away your rights lest you risk being thrown out by local security, are an all-too likely advancement of the End User Licensing Agreements we thoughtlessly sign whenever we use a new app or piece of software.
The cast of characters Kruger introduces to Hauler is a small but extremely well-developed one, and each of the characters brings something unique and likeable to the table, even if they’re only in the novel for a few scenes. Drake is an affable, engaging and overall believable everyman trying to scrape a living in a world where his skillset and abilities are less in demand with each passing year, and you can’t help but sympathize with his struggles despite his often dubious criminal record. For someone that I thought was just a generic, one-dimensional character who would only be around for a chapter or two at most, underworld ‘fixer’ Johnny Something is a delightfully weasel-like character who Kruger slowly but surely develops as a secondary protagonist and into something that you can also sympathize with despite his cowardly actions and generally annoying nature. The unlikely, brotherly relationship that develops between the two men is both engaging and oddly poignant, and one of the highlights of the novel. And Lily Wells works well as an antagonist throughout the novel, a highly ambitious but career-stymied security officer looking at doing whatever she can to climb the corporate ladder and get promoted to the higher echelons of her corporation; and while she could have stayed as a relatively two-dimensional antagonist, Kruger deftly gives her enough space in the novel to develop to the extent that she becomes rather likeable by the end, despite her attitude.
Hauler is a fast-paced, energetic and above-all fun slice of science-fiction, with a small but well-developed cast of characters, an intriguing take on the corporate dystopia scenario that is distinctly refreshing, and worldbuilding and an overarching narrative that hooked me from the very beginning, and kept me reading intensely until the last page. I’m genuinely curious and excited about where Kruger is taking the story of Benjamin Drake and his friends, enemies and reluctant allies, and cannot wait to get hold of a copy of the sequel whenever it comes out.