As someone who has put together more than a few Gundam models in my day, I feel uniquely qualified to report that August Kitko and the Mechas from Space is a book for anyone who has ever wondered, “What would it be like if Jem and the Holograms had become mobile suit pilots?” That’s not exactly the correct analogy, as the plot of the novel requires that its human musician/pilots plug their nervous systems directly into the giant mechs—so Mechas from Space is a bit more like if Pacific Rim or Neon Genesis Evangelion met Jem and the Holograms. Either way, though, the book is exactly as much fun as that sounds.
Gus Kitko is a jazz pianist of Earth a few centuries in the future, who has been having a bad year. His father has died, his career has peaked and possibly stalled, and he has begun asking himself whether life is worth living after losing his mother and sister in an unexpected tragedy. Just before the opening of the book’s action, things have taken a sudden, unexpected turn for the better when Gus crossed paths with Ardent Violet, the most popular musician of the planet and colonies, a sort of future David Bowie glam superstar. The reserved jazz musician and the ultra-famous rock star connect romantically and—perhaps even more unexpectedly—they hit it off musically as well:
Musically, they’re the total package—proficient on six instruments, an accomplished dancer and award-winning vocalist. By comparison, Gus is a theory-obsessed technician who has diligently devoted himself to a single tool.
Ardent picks up the pattern, and the frantic struggle to participate eases somewhat. They start predicting his moves, navigating the rapids together in sweeping song.
You’ve got this!
Ardent gets a decent flow going, and they’re feeling pretty good about themselves when Gus shouts, “Nice! You ready to get started?” (p. 97)
Gus’s cynical and even bleak demeanor provides an anchor and down-to-earth sensibility that balances Ardent’s (good-natured and acknowledged) immaturity and self-centeredness. For their part, Ardent, slowly and patiently as their affair becomes the stuff of tabloids, helps restore Gus’s love of life and faith in others—and ultimately his ability to love at all. Ardent, the caricature of a pop idol, is given depth through their family background and relationship with their agent, coming to a new kind of maturity and responsibility throughout the novel as they help Gus navigate his new planetwide notoriety as the lover of Ardent Violet and, incidentally, the savior of Earth.
Because the only small complication for this blooming romance is that it is initiated and begins to develop in the midst of the end of humanity, which finds itself assaulted by a wave of mind-wiping interstellar robots created and coordinated by a malevolent AI. Not only does Gus get entangled with Ardent in the midst of this crisis (they meet at an end-of-the-world concert organized by the King of Monaco, where the future’s ultra-rich await the final assault on Earth), they both become pivotal to the last-ditch attempt to save humanity.
In White’s future history, even as things have been going badly for Gus, things have been going relatively okay for the rest of humanity until a few years before the novel’s opening. After a climate-related brush with extinction that White only hints at, humanity wised up and flourished, spreading to the stars in waves of settlement and development guided by artificial intelligence. Since then, Earth and its colonies have enjoyed peace. Then, a few years before the opening of the novel—and at about the time Gus’s personal life started to fall apart—giant mechas known as Vanguards, accompanied by fleets of smaller robots known as ghosts, began attacking and wiping out the colonies one by one. The Vanguards would single-handedly take out a planet’s defenses, while swarms of ghosts swept the colony, systematically mind-wiping humans and adding their memories to an AI collective. After the first attacks, these stolen memories allowed the AI to access accounts and information on other worlds, so as the colonies were overrun, the surviving humans elsewhere cut off all communications between planets. By the time Gus and Ardent meet, Earth is isolated from the rest of the galaxy. The humans there can only wait helplessly for the Vanguards to approach the solar system—or, in the instance of Gus and Ardent and the days-long end-of-the-world party at which they meet, can only play Earth’s last songs.
All this backstory filters in by bits and pieces at the start of the novel, as Gus reflects on the past few days in Monaco. His first encounter with Ardent is even given via flashback, because by the novel’s opening, Gus has already managed to screw things up with their nascent relationship. There isn’t much time for Gus to feel sorry for himself, though, before there are not one but two giant robots crashing into the harbor at Monaco. Somehow, a mutiny has taken place among the Vanguards and at least one—designated Greymalkin—has decided Earth needs saving rather than destroying. When, in the midst of this Michael Bay’s Transformers-level chaos, Gus and Ardent decide to spend their final moments jamming out, Greymalkin punches a hole through the studio wall and offers Gus the chance to become its pilot, or conduit, giving Gus and Greymalkin a chance of together beating the Vanguard it is battling.
Ardent’s shout is a bolt of lightning into Gus’s soul. A jet-black robot fist punches through one side of the room, covered in gore and broken stone. It slams into Ardent, and they go flying toward an open window. The hand stops short of Gus, sweeping aside the baby grand as easily as dollhouse furniture. He staggers backward, trying to get away, but it digs out more of the house and catches him like fleeing vermin. (p. 23)
A human conduit, Gus quickly learns, allows a Vanguard to access the sum of all human experience absorbed by the robot so far, giving Graymalkin the edge it needs to defeat the other Vanguard sent to destroy Earth. The gambit pays off, and for the moment, thanks to Gus, Earth is saved—but Gus is left to figure out what comes next—and, perhaps more importantly, whether Ardent still wants to date him.
All of this happens in the first two chapters. It’s a terrific setup for a novel that maintains the intensity throughout. Anyone who grew up watching epic animated space battles between giant mechs will appreciate the fight above the planet New Jalandhar, for instance, which takes place about halfway through the novel as Gus and Greymalkin meet up with two other rebel Vanguards and their conduits (both musicians as well). The details and descriptions of each Vanguard’s unique armor, appearance, weapons, and special abilities seem custom-written for those who love the giant robot aesthetic. Mecha culture (acknowledged in the book’s title) provides a rich soil for White’s work, but what they do with it is original, effective, and (again) a lot of fun.
After the novel’s initial battle, Gus becomes the most important man on Earth, as Greymalkin will only function with him. Not only is this particular Vanguard Earth’s only effective defense, it’s also their only way of knowing what’s going on in the rest of the galaxy. What complicates the novel’s straightforward science fiction action (primarily in a good way) is that all this is woven around a romantic comedy: at the same time Earth’s military intelligence wants to interview, protect, and control Gus, he’s trying to woo Ardent. For the most part, the balance between action and romance works well, but in the novel’s first half the book loses its footing for a bit. In particular, a long scene with Gus freaking out about what to cook Ardent for their first date feels awkwardly wedged against the desire to know the status of the larger war and what’s happening on the other surviving colonies. On the other hand, Gus’s decision to hold off, multiple times throughout the book, on intimacy with Ardent as their relationship develops is handled with respect and delicacy, turning what could easily have been a sideline on sexual exploits into something that feels much truer.
When Gus leaves Earth to start a band join the other rebel Vanguards defending New Jalandhar—and Ardent takes off on their own to find an abandoned Vanguard that needs a conduit—the book finds a rhythm that it maintains for the rest of the story. Once all the rebel Vanguards and their human counterparts join back together on Earth to hold off a second assault, the band vibe becomes even more explicit—to the point where the military makes the four musicians (Gus and Ardent, plus the two pilots from New Jalandhar) cut an album to learn to work and think in syncopation. The Vanguards chose musicians as conduits, after all, because something about the way the giant robots communicate echoes the patterns of music. If it sounds a bit silly (though not any more than a lot of sci-fi technobabble), it works on the page, illustrating the characters’ teamwork and the rhythm of their battles. You can almost hear the soundtrack overlaying the final defense of Earth, which—perhaps because most of the fight is planet-side or maybe because the final coup de grâce is a repeat of the first battle—nonetheless doesn’t seem to land as hard as the battle over New Jalandhar. Taken as a whole, though, the glint, gleam, grit, and glam of the thing simply—and there’s really only one fitting verb here—rocks.