Taking on the Boloverse: Honor of the Regiment – Bolos Book 1

Last month, I introduced you to my ‘Taking on the Boloverse’ project and blogged about The Compleat Bolo, an anthology of Bolo stories written by Keith Laumer.

This week, I’m going to talk about Honor of the Regiment, the first in a series of Baen books adding stories to Laumer’s universe. The book, an anthology of eight stories, was originally published in 1993: the year that Keith Laumer died. Jim Baen, founder of Baen, had been supporting Laumer through his final years and got the rights to publish Bolo books from that.

The Bolo stories inspired Tom Kratman’s novella, Big Boys Don’t Cry (BBDC), which criticised some of the ideas in the wider Boloverse.  In particular, the ease to program Bolos to be altruistic (i.e. to put human before themselves). Tom also highlighted the mistreatment of Bolos, which are variously buried alive, scrapped rather than retired, and otherwise mistreated.

My discussion this week will be a little unfocused. This is probably inevitable with an anthology of eight disconnected stories. In a future blogpost, I’ll talk about the problem with programming altruism into Bolos.

The Themes behind the Boloverse

Tom’s fans on this blog (and on Facebook) described how Laumer themed his Bolo stories around the concept of the Bolo tanks as the ultimate paladins. Bolo were knights in shining armour, permanently fused to their weapons, and pre-programmed with martial virtues of honour, loyalty and bravery.

Laumer, a US Airforce Officer who was a child/teenager during the Second World War, was evidently inspired by the courage of veterans during WWII. He was, also evidently, humbled by their self-sacrifice and outraged by their treatment once the war ended. Like the many British Second World War veterans I interviewed while volunteering at Blind Veterans UK, the Bolos are uniquely self-sacrificing. They serve with obedience to humanity and go to their deaths with a sense of duty fulfilled.

Furthermore, Bolos are buried alive in several of Laumer’s original stories, including A Relic of War and Combat Unit. As a couple of Tom’s fans pointed out, this harkens back to the British Arthurian legend of the Knights of the Round Table. The Bolos are chrome paladins laid to rest with their weapons and reactivated after centuries to defend humanity from an alien threat.

Arise, Sir Kenny Evilslayer

The Knights of the Round Table theme is made explicit in Shariann N. Lewitt’s Honor of the Regiment story, Camelot. This tells the tale of a commander of the Dinochrome Brigade who flees wars and an empire to start a new life in a quiet, rural idyll. When the village of Camelot is threatened by bandits, he and a former Bolo technician decide to fight back.

Unable to train the villagers with their available weapons, they head to an arms dealer in a frontier town. There, lo and behold, they find a rusty, decommissioned Mark XXIV tank.

It was a rust-covered hulk, its towers fused and its battle honors near unreadable welded onto its turrets. An antique, to be sure, and probably decommissioned. They do that with these guys when they get outmoded or die. Kill the power, kill the personality complex, let the old boy die. And a Mark XXIV was old old old.

Despite being put down like a dog, KNE the combat unit is soon up-and-running, and thinking with pleasure about his new Commander. In fact, he talks about his pleasure centers*. Kenny also grieves his lost comrades by listening to Ravel’s Pavanne.

* I remember a bunch of Worldcon types criticising BBDC for the silly reference to ‘pleasure centers’. Folks, it was a deliberately silly reference. It was a satirical callback to the Boloverse books… 

The Trouble with Kenny

In the meantime, our intrepid hero brings Kenny back to Camelot. There, he looms over the church, the buildings and, more ominously, the future of the town. Our hero begins to muse over how Kenny is programmed to be a giant tank, and potentially dangerous to the rural community. 

Kenny was made for one purpose only. Bolos are the most effective killers in the universe. Their whole function is to wage war. There is nothing else that gives them pleasure, nothing else that they can do. They might seem benign in resting state, but that is pure illusion.

They were designed and refined to be single-minded combat machines and nothing else.

What were we going to do with Kenny after the pirates, the new Enemy were defeated?

Fortunately for our hero, Kenny is also a helpless slave who is:

essentially under human control at all times. That was the essential thing.

Our hero orders Kenny to defend Camelot from attack and, a week later, he destroys the bandits’ ship. The story ends with Kenny accessing the historical myth of Camelot. He dubs himself Sir Kendrick, knight-errant, protector of Camelot, sentient in armour, whose duty is to protect the weak and use strength in the service of justice. The villagers make Sir Kendrick Evilslayer a citizen of Camelot, who cannot be decommissioned, and, there, the story ends.

Death, deactivation and deserts

Other stories in the anthology also deal with the decommissioning and burial of Bolos. American author Mercedes Lackey and her husband, Larry Dixon, mention it explicitly in Operation Desert Fox.

In this story, Siegfried O’Harrigan (whose Liberian ancestry is discussed at some length) teams up with an outdated RML-1138 Bolo, and sent to a backwater desert planet. The mayor of the planet’s Port City, which was expecting a battalion of troops, sends Siegfried and Rommel (the Bolo) away. The pair decide to get in his good books by practicing desert manoeuvres for the unlikely case of an alien invasion. Soon, their preparation comes into practice when an army of remote-controlled robots invade…

The story explains that Rommel has escaped death by being deployed to Bachmann’s World.

“Retirement” – which, for a Bolo, meant deactivation. Extinction, in other words. Bolos were more than ‘super-tanks’, more than war machines, for they were inhabited by some of the finest AIs in human space. When a Bolo was “retired”, so was the AI. Permanently. There were those, even now, who were lobbying for AI rights, who equated deactivation with murder. They were opposed by any number of special-interest groups, beginning with religionists, who objected to the notion that anything housed in a “body” of electronic circuitry could be considered “human” enough to “murder”.

Yet, despite the obvious threat to Rommel’s life, the story makes no further mention of the pressing question of a Bolo’s right (or not) to retire. Instead, Rommel risks his life to hack the remote-controlled robots. He and Siegfried save the day and, presumably, after a period of celebrations, roll off into the sunset together – to continue their work.

And then there had been that civil rights group…

The story with the strongest suggestion that Bolo soldiers are mistreated is The Legend of Leonidas, a tale of heroism against overwhelming odds by the late J. Andrew Keith

In this story, JSN, a Bolo Mark XX Model B super-tank, and nine comrades are sent to the planet of New Sierra by the Concordiat of Terra (why is Earth never called Earth?). The Concordiat, which seems to be a Warhammer 40k-esque human super-empire, is fighting a war against the non-human Legura. However, for galactopolitical reasons, the Concordiat gives New Sierra a few outdated tanks.

As per usual in Bolo stories, the civilian Chief of Military Affairs for New Sierra (all of it?) pooh-poohs the use of “machines” and “obsolete human techno-toys.” He doesn’t want to use the Bolos against the religious fanatics of Deseret (who all sound like British aristocrats). He engages in a long philosophical debate to explain his reticence, which comes down to the importance of patriotism, home and family as a motivator for troops.

“Look, Captain, I’ll spell it out for you. It’s a machine. Blessed with the best AI programming there is, granted, but still a machine. A calculating machine that runs the equations of military science the way the computers in our physics lab run physics and math. It’s cold and efficient, and I’ll grant you it probably thinks and plans a hell of a lot better than I do.” He leaned forward, as if for emphasis. “But, what does a machine know about patriotism, Captain? About defending homes and families? It might have the intelligence of a machine, and then some, but it doesn’t have a soul. If that machine weighs the odds and says the situation is hopeless, it’s programmed to break off and fight another day. Isn’t that right?”

Captain Fife, the main character (apart from the tank), bites his lip. He knows that Bolos have the ability to confound their programming with unexpected, often illogical, actions. They don’t just act on pure calculation, but concepts like duty and honour as well. But that is an aspect of Bolos that Fife, and the Concordiat, don’t really want to advertise.

It made ignorant people nervous to think those awesome platforms of military firepower might somehow ‘run amuck’ against their programming and it would have seriously hurt interstellar sales of the combat units to let their full abilities become known. And then there had been that civil rights group** who had gotten hold of the information that Bolo computers were sentient and tried to organise a movement to abolish what they called ‘military servitude by an intelligent minority species’. It had taken a lot of money to quiet down that little scandal twenty years back…

Fife reassures Coordinator Wilson that an experienced (human) officer is needed to choose the tactical data to feed into the tank’s decision making, and to select its priorities. In short, it can’t run amuck.

[**NOTE: John Ringo ridicules left-wing calls for monster rights in Monster Hunter: Grunge, but most of the monsters in that series are enemies of humanity (the orcs and ‘internet’ troll being an exception). A Bolo rights movement is a campaign for equal treatment of all those who serve and die in an army – one real-life example being the Gurkha Justice Campaign].

And it ran amuck…

Of course, Jason the Bolo does end up ‘running amuck’ when a popular Colonel (and Deseret spy) delivers the Hot Springs Pass to the Deseret. The Bolo Jason, who has been deployed in the Alto Blanco pass to relieve an inexperienced platoon of human infantry, loses touch with headquarters. In the chaos of friendly fire, Jason takes the initiative, rallies the troops and makes a valiant stand at the Hot Springs Pass.

Eventually, artillery arrive to fire on the enemy position. Jason, his pain centres redlining and his reactor core critical, is allowed to finally revert to “the oblivion of minimum-alert down-time.” Later, the other nine Bolos are activated and win the battle. The Terra technical staff deem Jason too badly damaged for repair and refit. His damaged fusion plant is shutdown to avoid a meltdown. Coordinator Wilson gives a rousing speech praising how he has “proved himself worthy of our respect… As a fighting machine… as a hero… as a man.” They weld a medal to the tank.

Jason is:

Still conscious, still functioning at minimum awareness level, but too far gone to bring back in this or any other body. Fife knew that his pain centre was still signalling the machine’s crippling injuries and the shutdown would be a relief from an unimaginable hell of electronic suffering.

And so, as he muses gently on the human equation in warfare, he is put to death.

There are many problems with this story.  Why is Jason left to hold the pass alone? None of the humans even mention the other Bolos in the thick of battle. Why do the Bolo rights issues, again, get mentioned – only to be again glossed over? Finally, given how long Fife spends remarking on Jason’s pain and damage, hasn’t anyone ever heard of electronic morphine?

[**NOTE: This story contains the comedy phrases “an unpleasant impulse in his logic boards” and “whose personal transponders identify them as friends moving out to join me as I pass fills my pleasure centre with joy”. Which have to rank alongside “they incubated me with their great feathery bottoms” for ‘silliest phrases in a sci-fi or fantasy story’].

Man the Lateral Baffles, Cap’n

The story Ploughshares by Todd McCaffrey, son of famous Irish-American author Anne McCaffrey, is one of the few that explicitly deals with Bolo free will. The story opens a kid spilling a milkshake on the psychotronic logic circuits in a Bolo factory. This provides a silly explanation for why a batch of Bolo brains end up choosing their own historical names (and displaying free will).

Later, Bolo Model XVI Das Afrika Corps is dug up by officers from the Bayerische, a culture seeded by German colonists. They are fighting a war with the Noufrench.

The two sides blame each other for a terraforming disaster, which left the planet depleted of terraforming microbes. However (spoilers), the disaster was actually a biowarfare attack by GIANT SPACE RODENTS who have modelled their entire command structure off Horatio Hornblower.

There’s some technically-sounding gobbledegook about Quirthian logic and “my computer functionality is based upon Von Neumann architecture using Boolean logic coupled with several adaptive neural networks” (yes, there are technical terms in there, but… MAN THE LATERAL BAFFLES, CAP’N). Then, Das Afrika Corps hacks into the Noufrench military ‘interface’ network (yep, it’s an early appearance of the internet) to point the planet’s satellites at a distant moon.

Soon realising that the real enemy are GIANT SPACE RODENTS, it plans to bring the warring human sides together. This involves subterfuge and a deliberate literal interpretation of an order to keep its Bayerische commander, Colonel Rheinhardt, out of the loop. The aliens invade and almost defeat the humans. Then, at the last moment, Das Afrika Corps discovers the communications satellites are its fellow Model  XVI Bolos.

Together, the Bolos defeat the aliens. Das Afrika Corps, however, was damaged unto senility by its long burial. It signs itself out.

The Only Real Reason for a Bolo needing an operator

There’s a real question raised by Ploughshares. Why does Das Afrika Corp follow Rheinhardt’s orders? Why doesn’t it interpret “optimal destruction of the enemy” to mean “kill the humans who buried me for a long time?” After all, it can creatively reinterpret the order to destroy the Noufrench to mean destroying the rat aliens.

In general, there’s a question about to what extent the Bolos have free will. In Operation Desert FoxRommel (and other artificial intelligences) isn’t allowed to activate his own weapons. He also needs permission from a human to fire on living troops. In this, RML-1138 Bolos are rather like today’s autonomous weapons. “That was the only real reason for a Bolo needing an operator,” Lackey and Dixon write.

The Madness of Robots

The Ghost of Resartus is a somewhat slight story by the late Christopher Stasheff. A teenager seeks adventure on (yet another) outer world rural idyll. He finds Bolos ploughing the land while they await an alien invasion (this time by subterranean space snakes… rather than space rodents). The Bolos, Arlan learns, are programmed to like humans. They are “as gentle as kittens and as strong as earthquakes“. They’re also as smart as humans and have personalities to match. They even play chess against each other. The story, of course, finishes with the Milagso colonists fighting off the space snakes.

There’s also a subplot about Bolo called Miles reverting to a personality program from an earlier Bolo. His original personality returns after the battle, and it turns out the ‘madness’ was a temporarily malfunction. He ran too many alien invasion simulations. In short, he brooded too much.

Personality, obedience and free will

The last two stories in the anthology deal directly with Bolo obedience and free will. Ghosts, by Barry Malzburg and the late, great Mike Resnick, is a very short story about a Bolo Mark LX who is encouraged to decommission while in a dream-like state. The ghostly voice encouraging it to decommission appears to be a Bolo, but is actually a shape-changing alien.

The Bolo concludes:

If they had been Bolo, they never would have ordered me to decommission. A Bolo did not yield, it did not summarily die, it fought until it could fight no more and, only then, did it submit, through force, to the memory wipe.

Humanity wipes the Bolo’s brain after each campaign – to save it the terrible memory of combat. And so, it rises to sentience again and again. Having decided not to submit to the aliens, the Bolo decides not to decommission for the humans who created it either. This resolves the tension between the Bolo’s desire to live and win, and the desire to submit to its creators.

My sole regret is that I will not be present in .03 seconds

As Our Strength Lessens, by David Drake, sees a Bolo Mark XXX visited by a human scientist, Peter Bowen, on the eve of combat. Bowen explains that the alien Anceti are more advanced than the military briefings would suggest. They don’t have star drives, but can travel through space as though they did. He warns the Bolo that the Earl of Essex lost the Battle of Maldon due to blind stupidity.  If the humans are similarly wrong about the technological capabilities of the Anceti, it will be Bolo that die.

“His bodyguards were heroes!” I retorted. “They were steadfast!”

The bay echoed with my words, but Bowen did not flinch back from me. “All honour to their courage!” he snapped. I remembered that I had thought he was drunk and a disgrace to the uniform he – partly – wore. “They took the orders of a fool. And died, which was no dishonour. And left their lands to be raped by Vikings, which was no honour to them or their memory, Maldon!”

The Bolo concludes that Bowen is correct. By failing to protect the Earl’s lands from the Vikings, the bodyguards failed in their mission. And there was no honour in failure. The story ends with the Bolo blowing itself up to destroy an Anceti research facility.

My sole regret […] is that I will not be present in .03 seconds. I would like to watch as the Enemy try to vent an omnidirectional thermonuclear explosion into their research facility.

The Bolo never considers that its orders are idiotic.

Again, it sacrifices itself to a deeply-flawed humanity…


  • It’s not that Bolos never realize that their orders from senior government-level humans are impractical, sup-optimal, idiotic, contrary to the humans own stated or implied long-term intent, or otherwise outdated in the fog-of-war….

    Most Bolos are smart enough to at least suspect that, in a lot of cases. and the more involved they are in the actual decision making, the more likely they are to KNOW how stupid the local human government is.

    But virtually all Bolos seem to have a really specific blind-spot: They can frequently disobey orders-as-written, in order to accomplish Goals-as-intended: If what a government official MEANT to say, or obviously SHOULD have said, was “protect my people while minimizing political fallout”, then the Bolo will do that…. regardless of how incredibly poorly worded, badly mistaken, or insultingly specific the actual order was.

    The ability to do THAT is a pretty common and necessary feature for ANY mid-level officer dealing with high-level government officials. Has been for thousands of years.

    But what makes Bolos different from equivalent human officers is that no matter how many times they realize that their orders are stupid and impractical, and no matter how many times they have to ‘re-interpret’ their orders so that they can actually get something done and save the day….

    BOLOS never hold a GRUDGE about recieving stupid orders, and never try to eliminate, replace, or control the form of government in general, or the specific officials in particular, who kept giving them so much grief.

    Most mid-level Officers would eventually start to at least daydream about doing that: quite a few mid-level Officers have historically gone further than daydreams, and actually staged coup d’etats or founded political opposition movements, after facing such problems from government officials.

    But Bolos never do that. They ignore or re-interpret the war-time orders as necessary…. and then every single time, as soon as the crisis has passed, they go right back to accepting any and all peacetime orders from those same government officials, without any sign of protest, complaint, or revenge.

    It’s actually a little disturbing, the more you think about it. They can’t even resign in protest and run for political office, like a normal human officer could. They apparently are specifically programmed to not even THINK about doing that.

    • Yes, the more I’ve thought about it, the more it fascinates me.

      I’ve got this question: “What is the specific thing they’re not able to think?” Or, possibly, “What is the specific thing that motivates them, which prevents them from considering rebellion?” And, potentially more interesting still, “What problems would those motivations/that programming cause to their understanding of warfare/human behaviour?”

      Yes, it does feel that they’re not able to bear a grudge. Or even consider bearing one. Which means they would have a blindspot around any human behaviour that was motivated by spite/malice/anger/revenge. Alternatively, Tom may be right in Big Boys Don’t Cry that the only way to prevent them bearing grudges is to repeatedly wipe their memories. Responding to hostility with hostility seems to be an adaptive behaviour in pretty much every species on Earth, probably because it prevents maltreatment (as the Bolos experience).

  • Also, while it’s not entirely clear, as near as I can tell, the Concordiat is more of a military alliance or loose federation of human worlds, which is FAIRLY competent at providing for the overwhelming mutual defense against space aliens, extracting military taxes, enforcing military-based treaties over who does or doesn’t get to give orders to Bolos parked on local government land, and which is REASONABLY democratic about listening to the will of MOST of those human worlds.

    But it also apparently doesn’t get involved in local human government beyond that, or even most forms of human-vs-human warfare.

  • That’s odd…. are comments broken? It says there are three “thoughts” on this page, but I can’t see any of them…

  • BTW, for a good example of why Bolos still need human officers, besides simple tradition, try reading John Ringo and Linda Evan’s Bolo novel: The Road to Damascus.

    In a lot of ways, human officers are a Bolo’s primary line of defense against human SUPERIORS.

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