Sunday, June 5, 2016

Donovan Steele Covered


Lt. Donovan Steele was a good cop until he was killed. Then, he got even better.

What? Two brain counts? I don't generally even do one count for these Covered-style posts, let alone two. But yeah, it's an extenuating circumstance. If you're an interested (and somewhat patient) soul, read on: all will be explained.

So this is a series of Men's Adventure novels, written mostly by J. D. Masters (Simon Hawke), with S. L. Hunter (Victor Milan) taking over for the last two books. Lots of pseudonym-use in the Men's Adventure genre, in case you were wondering.

Anyway, the series was published between 1989 and 1991, and for the most part it rocked. I mean it seriously rocked. I've probably read these books three or four times over the years, and that kind of thing doesn't happen for me very often. I'm not even a Men's Adventure fan, per se. But I am a robot/cyborg fan, and this series really delivers on that front. It even manages to avoid most of the Men's Adventure tropes that keep me from being a fan of that genre. Although I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a considerable amount of excessive-weapons-description going on, here.

I initially found the ...second book, I think it was... in some Idaho truck stop during a road trip. That would've been around 1993 or so. Anyway, I liked it so much I decided to track down the entire series, and while technically the World Wide Web existed at the time, there was no Amazon.com or anything like it. Which meant I was calling and/or visiting a lot of used bookstores, over the course of almost a year and across multiple states, before I eventually got all the books into my hot little hands. Man, I love the internet. You folks who grew up after the fact have no idea.

At any rate, there's a lot of conflicting information out there as to who actually wrote what in the series. I read somewhere the books were all written by Hawke, who didn't like story changes his publisher insisted on so he changed his pseudonym for the last two books. I read somewhere else that Hawke wrote the first six, then he and Milan wrote the last two books together. Other sites credited each guy as individually writing various novels in the series, but disagreed on which one wrote which books.

Eventually I cam across Milan's email address, so I asked him myself what the deal was. Here's what he said:
I wrote the final two Steele books, by myself as I recall. The changes were pretty much mine, though I have a vague recollection the publisher suggested that I take in a slightly new direction.
Then I found Hawke's author page over at Goodreads, and this response to a fan, which clears things up even more:
My son is a HUGE fan of the Steele series, which I also read and liked. Are there any plans for further Steele books?

Penney, there will probably not be any more Steele books, at least, not written by me. This is because of the nature of that series, to which I do not own the rights. Originally, the editor on that project was Jim Morris (who went on to become a successful screenwriter). He approached me through my agent at that time. The publisher had outlined the idea for this series and they wanted me to write it. I thought their idea could be improved, so I offered to re-write their series outline and Jim agreed that my version was better, so that is what we went with. I wrote the first 6 books in the Steele series, under the pen name J.D. Masters, then decided not to do any more, so Victor Milan continued the series under the name Steve Hunter, which has caused some confusion in that people thought that was me. Vic should really get the proper credit for the books he wrote, so I want to make sure that people know I only wrote the J.D. Masters books. Anyway, thank your son for me, and I hope you'll try some of my other work and enjoy it equally.

Best, Simon
So that's that. Everyone agrees.

Okay. Enough background. Let's take a look at these books. As with any paperback novel, the covers  provide half of all fun to be had, and I'm putting up both fronts and backs for these books. Fronts to showcase the cover art, of course, and backs so you can read all those action-tastic plot blurbs. After each set of covers, I'll add a brief-to-ridiculously-brief summary of the book, and any other thoughts that wander on out of me. So here goes.


Steele


First of all, great cover, right? Lasers from the eyes, and that classic peel-back-skin-to-reveal-cyborg-arm-underneath thing going on? I'd checked each book and couldn't see an obvious signature, but then I found a site crediting Joe DeVito with at least five of the eight. After that I rechecked the covers and found what looks like part of his signature, mostly obscured by copy, on a couple of them. Since the style on all eight covers is similar, as far as I can tell (although he used two or three models across the series), I'm guessing he did all the books himself.

Anyway, this book is basically an origin story, setting up that there was a "bio-war" at the turn of the 21st century (around the year 2000?) that wiped out most of the world population, decimated governments, etc. It tells us Donovan Steele (with a name like that how could he possibly end up as anything other than a cyborg?) was born "mid 21st century" (we'll say 2050) and is 42 years old at the start of the series. That would have this first book's events happening in or around 2092, almost 100 years after the war.

At least, that's my guess. This and the other books are mostly pretty vague on dates. Only thing that doesn't fit is in the sixth book, which mentions Steele's daughter having died (in book five) in 2142, which would be before Steele's birth. But it's an odd man out comment, and doesn't match the  more general timeline set in the other books.

So like I say it's an origin story, spending the first part of the book world building, showing us that Steele is the best damn cop in the city, and so on. It's not even a 200 page book, and Steele isn't cyborg-ized until page 109, after which we get the obligatory learning-how-to-use-the-new-abilities montage, and then Steele goes after Victor Borodini, who he finds out was ultimately responsible for his death.

So the gist of the human-to-cyborg transformation is this: Steele is all busted up and brain dead to boot. But after "six months and hundreds of operations," the CIA's super-secret cyborg program repairs his body, downloads his damaged-brain data into a computer-brain and sticks that into his skull as a replacement for his organic brain.

His body is still basically human (head, neck, torso, all his internal organs), but he has robotic arms and legs, "bionic" eyes, and a metal skullcap. He's got bullet-resistant fake skin over his upper torso and skull, but his lower abdomen, pelvis, neck and face all still have real skin. His spinal column has been reinforced (but not replaced) with metal sheathing, and his rib cage, collarbone, scapula and shoulders have all been replaced with metal.

I know it's geeky, but I just reveled in laying out that ratio of human to robotic body parts. If you're like-minded you know just how I feel, and if you aren't you don't. Best wishes to all of us.

Anyway, the biggest problem Steele has with all this (other than the fact nobody asked him before doing it at all) is the computer-for-a-brain thing. He can't figure out if he still has a soul, which leads to much (pun alert) soul-searching as the series goes on. I liked this bit. I thought it helped raise the series above the usual guns-n-guts story lines you find in most Men's Adventure novels.

So anyway (I did say brief summaries, right?), Steele spends the last half of the book gunning for Victor Borodini, without a lot of success. But don't worry, there's more of that (success) in the sequel.


Cold Steele


Here's where my being brief actually starts. (You can't be brief until you've given the setup.) This book more or less finishes the Borodini story line, although the guy sticks around through the sixth book as a more minor character. It also introduces a backup copy of Steele's consciousness program, which develops its own sense of personhood and goes on to play a major role in future books.

On the cyborg-ness front, Steele's jaw and teeth are replaced (having been shot away at the end of the last book) with metal/synthetics and his areas of artificial skin are strengthened, but otherwise he becomes no less "human." Well, he gets upgrades to his arms. One now has a gun barrel in it and the other one has a dart launcher, plus he has removable hands that can be replaced with guns and tools, as you can see on the cover (nice detail showing the seam on that still attached hand). But his arms and hands were already artificial in the last book, so my "no less human" judgement stands.


Killer Steele


This third book plays the old "best friend and partner becomes cyborg and goes insane" line, and has Steele battling his ex-best friend to the death. The other cyborg is pretty much just like Steele, except its arms house a laser and plasma gun, making Steele's rifle and dart launcher look pretty rinky-dink in comparison. Great cover, but in the story the other cyborg actually looks completely human, like Steele.

Oh, and that backup copy of Steele's consciousness (that he doesn't know exists) escapes into the wild and decides to call itself Matrix.


Jagged Steele


Like the back cover says, this time we get wannabe dictator Zachary Cord holding the nation hostage and Steele taking him out by book's end, with Matrix's anonymous help. Only change to Steele's body this time is he now has a laser (showcased on the cover) built into the arm he used to have the dart launcher in. He still has the dart launcher, but it's been moved over to an add on appendage.  Looks like DeVito (I'm still assuming he did all the covers) had a different model for this and the next few covers. I personally prefer the first one.

Anyway, Senator Bryce Carmen is introduced here, who becomes Steele's nemesis over the next couple of books.


Renegade Steele


You know, It'd be nice to see these cover paintings without all the copy on top of them. That must be frustrating for cover artists, having so much of their work obscured all the time.

Okay. Nutshell is Bryce Carmen is a bastard and want's to shut Project Steele down. Matrix starts trying to communicate with Steele, who thinks he's going insane like his old partner-turned-cyborg did, and goes AWOL before anyone can tell him what's really going on. Carmen uses the AWOL thing to paint Steele as a threat, closes down the CIA and orders Steele shot on sight. Matrix and Steele eventually meet up, become pals and start working together, but the book ends with everything still up in the air.

See? It's getting briefer and briefer as we go. (Told you.)


Target Steele


Probably my least favorite cover of the series. That little gun on the end of his arm just looks silly. Though I would not tell him that if he were pointing it at me.

So this book finishes up the Senator Carmen story line. It also finishes off Victor Borodini, who was hanging around, being a thorn in Steele's side till now. Hawke knew he was done writing the series, and he wraps up all his loose ends here. By book's end, everybody Steele cares about is dead, he's on his own and has decided to go off to look for some "mysterious organization" that he finds out was pulling government strings (starting his search in Florida, no less). Honestly, if you stopped reading the series here and never even picked up the last two books, everything would feel pretty complete.


Fugitive Steele


We're back to that initial model with this cover, who I think captures Steele's character better than the other ones DeVito used. Although Steele no longer looks remotely like this, in-story. Victor Milan has taken over the writing now, and he's basically done a soft reboot as to what Steele is:

In a quick prologue we find out a year has passed, Steele's already done whatever he was gonna do in Florida, and he's on his way to New Mexico. He's hoping recent developments in cloning technology there can give him back his organic brain and body. But his plane crashes and he spends another couple of years in a coma, lying in the plane's wreckage as what's left of his organics rot away. The story proper starts with Steele's skeleton being discovered and him waking up, three years after the last book's events finished up.

With Milan's new spin, Steele's organic bits were only kept around for his psychological well-being, so when they've burned/rotted away and he wakes up as a completely robotic endoskeleton, it's not a problem. Well, there is one problem: he can't speak, having no vocal cords and lungs. He spends most of the book as an endoskeleton, gets a speech synthesizer so he can communicate, and eventually ends up with cloned flesh and organs to cover his endoskeleton. Which is a step in the right direction, as far as he's concerned.

So basically Milan has turned Steele into a Terminator: Give the guy a phone book and he'd be ripping out the page with Sarah Connor's address on it.

The Steelenator

Now, this whole endoskeleton thing really threw me. Clearly before this, Steele was a human being who had robotic limbs and a computerized brain. If his arms and legs had been removed, he'd be left with a (more or less) completely human head and torso. It was repeatedly pointed out that too much damage to his organics would kill him, and certainly taking the kind of damage he does in the prologue of this book would have left nothing behind but a pile of scorched metal limbs and other random bits.

Not that it's a bad concept on its own. If the series had been written from the start about a guy who's consciousness was downloaded into a full-on robot, I'd have probably enjoyed it (nearly) as much. But changing things up so drastically mid-run, I just couldn't roll. (Sorry, Victor Milan.)

Anyway. The story itself is kind of hodgepodge, with Steele and a university enclave going up against corrupt city officials, a religious cult, and a renegade military outfit. And while Milan is a competent writer, his style here is more satirical than Hawke's (again, not a problem in itself, but a jarring departure from what's come previously), and what he's doing engages me less than what the series had going on previously.

Oh, this book also introduces a genetically-engineered assassin named Misericordia, which sets up the conflict for the next (and last) book in the series.


Molten Steele


Last book. Here, we get Terminator-Steele facing off against Misericordia (who is not a cybernetic ninja as the back cover would have you believe, although she is an assassin). She's been created and raised by a disgruntled ex-government employee whose genetics program was dropped in favor of the program that resulted in Steele being created, and the guy pretty much lives to prove his flesh-based killer is better than any cyborg.

Turns out this bad guy's got Matrix (who was mysteriously absent from the last book and now we know why) being held captive in a Faraday cage, and uses that fact to lure Steele in. Steele has a surprisingly quick battle with Miseri, in which she totally hands him his ass, before destroying his body and transplanting his consciousness into a cybernetic coyote (don't ask). Coyote-Steele and Matrix (fruitlessly) work together trying to get out of there, until Miseri has a change of heart and helps them escape.

To make what's beginning to feel like a very long story shorter, Steele ends up with his consciousness being downloaded into a clone of his original body, which the bad guy had created awhile back and still (conveniently) had lying around. So Donovan Steele finally has what he wants: a regular old flesh and blood body with a regular old organic brain. Matrix ends up in that coyote's body Steele was using for awhile and decides he'll stick with it for now, as the two wander off into the sunset.

That different-but-still-competent story Milan started with in the previous book has pretty much devolved into slapstick, here. Definitely my least favorite book in the series, and a bummer-note to end on. This one has what's maybe my second least favorite cover as well, because Steele looks nearly as silly with a big knife on the end of his arm as he did with that gun. Plus that never happens in the story, since he no longer has any attachable weapon-y things and couldn't use them if he did, having no way to safely remove then reattach that T-800 flesh covering he got at the end of the last book.



Anyway, that's it. At around 200 pages each, these books are all quick reads, and they're enjoyable enough as a whole for me to pull them out for a revisit once or twice a decade. The first six are definitely in a league of their own, but those last two are worth the few hours it takes to get through them, assuming I'm in a completist mood.

And while I don't generally do brain counts at all for these "...Covered" posts, it became apparent as I went along I was doing a lot more than just looking at covers, here. And, since there's such a gap for me between what the two writers put out, well... that means two separate brain counts.

Over all, books one through six rate FOUR MAN-AND-MACHINE BRAINS, while the last two just get by with THREE STEELENATOR BRAINS.

And, through the miracle of the internet, you can get the whole series yourself for anywhere from one to three hundred pennies each.

So there.

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