STEN, by Chris Bunch & Allan Cole
Orbit, 2000, 310pp, £5.99
ISBN 1-84149-007-5

"Over one million Sten books sold worldwide"!! screams the cover over an armour-suited squaddie toting a large gun. "Some people just don't give up"!! Hmm, I almost have before I've even begun.

Sten's father is a "worker" for the The Companyš, the largest single bastion of free enterprise in the galaxy. The Sten family are just one of millions of wage slaves on Vulcan, The Company's gargantuan industrial station, which supplies anything and everything The Empireš needs. When the rest of Sten's family are killed by The Company's rich, mad and evil head honcho to protect his top secret "Bravo Project", Sten decides that free enterprise is just not for him and embarks on what looks like being a four book series of classic/hackneyed space opera by escaping to join the elite Imperial Guard.

On the minus side, Sten hasn't an original idea in its 310 pages, it is only just adequately written, and at times sickeningly and gratuitously violent. There is some kind of Felicific Calculus in effect, however: because The Company off-handedly kills 1,385 people in the first chapter it's quite alright for Sten to gun down, stab, break the necks of, burn and blow out of the airlock a similar number of victims in the ensuing 37 chapters.

On the plus side, Sten is a disarmingly simple and entertaining read that demands little of its readers, and I couldn't help but enjoy it. You know almost exactly what's going to happen next and, even while my PC side was kicking and screaming in indignation, my darker side relished the history of the Imperial Guard battle suit, the grubby sub-Blade Runner world of Vulcan and the undeniable righteousness of Sten's bloody guerilla war against The Company.

If you're looking for subtlety the Imperial Guard's armoury does include, of all things, Bester Grenades, which utterly confound their victim's sense of time. Well, it made me laugh!

Sten is probably not something to give to sf's detractors to try to raise their opinion of the genre - it's one to read under the covers at night with a torch!

Buy it from Amazon.co.uk