Exploring mental illness via ’80s cyberpunk-action vignettes is no easy task, but Ferrett Steinmetz’s Automatic Reload accomplishes it with panache. Set in the near future, Automatic Reload takes readers to a world where automation has just begun its ascent to supremacy. Our narrator, Mat, is an ex-military drone operator turned cybernetic mercenary, or bodyhacker. He receives a mysterious, possibly super profitable contract, rife with unknown danger and enemies. He meets our other protagonist, Sylvia, soon after beginning the mission, and the two become fast friends, lovers and fugitives from nearly everyone they know.
The exposition runs through a couple of weeks, but the primary story happens over a mere 24 hours. In this short time, our protagonists move from ambush to obstacle to blockade run, shooting, punching and panicking through each scene. Mental illness is a central theme of the book, as both of our primary protagonists have experience with similar conditions: Mat has PTSD, and Silvia has a panic disorder. The depiction feels natural and well thought out, and it helps separate our main characters from your typical immortal, unbothered action heroes. Rather than violently obliterating everything in their way, Mat and Sylvia meticulously sort through every plan to ensure no civilians or innocent bystanders are hurt. They both have mental illnesses, and they’re both quite capable warriors, and one does not invalidate the other. I appreciated that Automatic Reload does not try to “cure” Mat or Sylvia. Instead, the narrative leans into their coping methods and allows the characters to work through their pain and trauma.
Since most of the plot happens over the course of one day, Steinmetz’s lack of chapter breaks creates a chaotic, stressful pace for readers. You’ll want to read this book in 100-page segments, pausing only when you reach one of Steinmetz’s act breaks. I enjoyed the structure of the book and Steinmetz’s frenetic writing style, but this is certainly not a book for light reading in 10- to 15-minute chunks, and readers looking for a calm read on a cool afternoon will not find a solution to their needs.
Automatic Reload is perfect for anyone looking for a lighter take on cyberpunk stories. The tech of Steinmetz’s future world walks the border of psuedoscience just enough to entertain without preventing immersion in what seems like a very realistic future. There are no surprising betrayals or stunning revelations, simply good people trying to do good things. Explosive and page-turning prose, ridiculous scenarios and an empowering perspective on mental illness make Automatic Reload a fun and engaging read.