This week, I finished The Compleat Bolo, an anthology of Bolo stories written by American airforce officer Keith Laumer. He wrote most of the stories in the 1960s, before he had the stroke that effectively ended his writing career. However, the anthology also contains two stories written by Laumer in the 1980s: Rogue Bolo I & II.
The stories are in rough chronological order. The first, The Night of the Trolls, is about a Mark II Bolo. By the fourth story, Last Command, we’re onto a Mark XXVIII. As Alan Brown says in his classic SF review of The Compleat Bolo, the chronological order means the first two stories, The Night of the Trolls and Courier, barely have Bolos.
In Part I of this blogpost, I will discuss the original Bolo stories. I’ll cover Rogue Bolo in Part 2.
Trolls, crystal keycards and sharks with FRICKING laser guns
The Night of the Trolls and Laumer’s Retief story, Courier, remain gripping yarns, but feel VERY dated. The Mark II Bolos are stupid robots that are probably outclassed by today’s mall bots (toddler demolition powers or not). They also seem improbably large to be the lone guard on a military facility. Why did the Prometheus facility use huge Bolos and not sentry towers and CCTV cameras? Or, if I’m being silly, sharks with fricking laser guns?
An email, an email, my spaceship for an email
Written in 1962, Courier was sufficiently retro-futuristic that I had difficulty suspending disbelief. How do people have routine space travel in the same setting as cardboard folders, papers boarding passes, and flight schedules tacked up on the wall (I assume). Why does Retief need a clerk to book a space flight? Just use your iPhone, Retief.
The story continues in this retro-futurist vein. The spacecraft looks like a cruise liner, circa 1960, with the stewards in white gloves. Retief has a ‘tape’ (!) (of information!) built into the handle of his suitcase. Everyone talks in a hat-tipping, obsequious manner like they’re a movie from the ’50s. The technology and setting is so dated, yet so integral to the story, that it was hard to avoid skipping sections. I was, at several points, literally almost shouting at the book, “Just do it online FFS, already. DO IT ONLINE AND THEN SEND AN EMAIL.”
The Night of the Trolls was pretty similar on the technology front. In 1963, when Laumer wrote the story, even hotel keycards were a futuristic technology:
I opened the box, sorted through half a dozen silver-dollar-sized ovals of clear plastic, lifted one out.
“Is it a magic charm?” Renada asked, sounding awed. She didn’t seem so sophisticated now – but I liked her better human.
“Just a synthetic crystalline plastic, designed to resonate to a pattern secular to my EEG,” I said. “It amplifies the signal and gives off a characteristic emission that the psychotronic circuit in the Bolo picks up.”
For the Honour of the Regiment
After two stories using early Bolos as scenery, we get to Field Test, the first to feature a sentient tank. Field Test opens with one of Laumer’s best inventions, the distinctive Bolo voice:
.07 seconds have elapsed since my general awareness circuit was activated at a level of low alert. Throughout this period, I have been uneasy, since this procedure is clearly not in accordance with the theoretical optimum activation schedule.
He was great at character voices, although some sound quite dated these days. The Bolo voice captures a good sense of a emotional machine intelligence, as Laumer understood it in the ’60s. The styling contains high-precision numerics and references to circuitry, combined with a deep sense of empathy and thoughtful compassion.
The story contains several first-person narrators, mostly human. They tell the tale of a Cold War on another planet, and High Command’s unease over deploying a self-aware weapon. Eventually, the Bolo Mark XX is deployed, but promptly junks itself on a hopeless attack. When asked why, it replies “For the honour of the regiment.” So, not junking itself, then, but self-sacrifice in the line of duty.
On Roombas, Bolos and exploding babies
Field Test is mostly about an ethical dilemma over using AI but, unfortunately, it’s not that interesting to a modern reader. In particular, the assumed capabilities of this new weapon are rather old-fashioned:
Then, gentlemen, let us carry on this supposition one step farther: suppose, by accident, by unlikely coincidence if you will, the machine should encounter some obstacle which had the effect of deflecting this one-hundred-and-fifty-tonne dreadnought from its intended course so that it came blundering towards the perimeter of the test area. The machine is programmed to fight and destroy all opposition.
Nowadays, even the humble vacuum cleaner, or my son’s Code-a-pillar, have better collision detection than a Bolo is assumed to possess.
The Code-a-Pillar even makes heartbreakingly distressed noises whenever it hits an obstacle, or is handled roughly by a child. (As an aside, I’ve always wondered whether intelligent weapons of the future might play upon the same emotions as the Code-a-Pillar to protect themselves from human enemies).
Bury your comrades… in every sense of the word
The next story, Last Command, seems to be regarded as among classic tear-jerkers of the original Bolo series. In this tale, a Bolo buried for 70 years after a battle reactivates due to construction works. Rendered decrepit by damage, it heads towards a city in the belief the war was lost and it’s an enemy installation. Luckily, a self-sacrificing old timer, who commanded the unit in its last battle, is on hand to throw himself upon its irradiated hull. The city is saved. Veteran human and obsolete tank roll off into the desert to die together.
I will return, now, to the bolded sentence. Yep, they buried the tank.
“Yessir!” The old man pulled himself together with an obvious effort. “I took the Brigade in; put out flankers, and ran the Enemy into the ground. We mopped ’em up in a thirty-three hour running fight that took us from over by Crater Bay all the way down here to Hellport. When it was over, I’d lost sixteen units, but the Enemy was done. They gave us Brigade Honors for that action. And then…”
“Then the triple-dyed yellow-bottoms at Headquarters put out the order the Brigade was to be scrapped; said they were too hot to make decon practical. Cost too much, they said! So after the final review -” he gulped, blinked – “they planted ’em deep, two hundred metres, and poured in special high-R concrete.”
He, at least, managed a gulp at the fate of his former comrade whose circuits were deliberately fused before being buried under a motorway. Yet, no one else in the setting, or the story, seemed to realise this is a problem.
Shoot your enemies, revegetate your friends
This brings us onto A Relic of War, which I found to be the best story in the anthology. In this tale of a future war, Bobby the tank is the mascot of a village built at the site of a past battle. He spends his days, covered in vegetation, shooting the breeze with villagers in the square.
One day, a ‘turbocar’ (why didn’t we get our flying cars? Weep) turns up carrying Crewe. He’s a Disposal Officer tasked with shooting an EMP pulse at Bobby to send him to the rainbow bridge. Needless to say, his arrival isn’t welcomed by Mayor Blauvelt and the other villagers, who are all fond of Bobby.
Undeterred, Crewe sticks around. Shortly after activating his grey plastic communications gizmo (cheap Android phones, pah!), Bobby rouses and rumbles off into the forest.
Crewe, of course, tells the villagers that Bobby has gone rogue, revs up his cushion-car, and sets off into the jungle in pursuit.
They passed more evidence of a long-ago battle: the massive, shattered breech mechanism of a platform-mounted Hellbore, the gutted chassis of what might have been a bomb car, portions of downed aircraft, fragments of shattered armour. Many of the relics were of Terran design, but often it was the curiously curved, spidery lines of a rusted Axorc microgun or implosion projector that poked through the greenery.
“It must have been a heavy action,” Crewe said. “One of the ones towards the end that didn’t get much notice at the time. There’s stuff here I’ve never seen before, experimental types. I imagine, rushed in by the enemy for a last-ditch stand.”
”Contact in a minute or two,” Crewe said.
As Blauvelt opened his mouth to reply, there was a blinding flash, a violent impact, and the jungle erupted in their faces.
When Crewe regains his senses, he obviously blames the Bolo, but it is not to be.
“Good God,” Blauvelt croaked. Crewe twisted, saw the high, narrow, iodine-dark shape of the alien machine perched on jointed crawler-legs fifty feet away, framed by blast-scorched foliage. Is multiple-borrowed micro-gun battery was aimed dead at overturned car.
You’ll need a copy of the book for the result of this atmospheric, filmic action sequence but, needless to say, Bobby triumphs and trundles back to the village. Yet, despite lauding him as a hero, the villagers have become afraid of Bobby and want him disposed of.
Crewe walked toward the plaza. The Bolo loomed up, a vast, black shadow against the star-thick sky. Crewe stood before it, looking up at the already draggled pennants, the wilted nosegay drooping from the gun muzzle.
”Unit Nine Five Four, you know why I’m here?” He said, softly.
”I compute that my usefulness as an engine of war is ended,” the soft rasping voice said.
And, so, the Bolo goes to its execution with quiet dignity and passivity and honour and… [sic].
I have questions:
- What is it, Laumer, with stories about burying/discarding/executing Bolos?
- Was it your intention to create a bizarre, unjust dystopia where gallant, honourable, intelligent robots are treated worse than dogs?
Surprised in maintenance
Combat Unit was the first Bolo story that Laumer wrote. First published in 1960, it tells the tale of a Mark XXXI Bolo experimented upon by alien scientists. Discovering itself trapped in a research centre with its damaged brigade, it manages to escape and send a message to the remnants of humanity.
As it turns out, the Bolo has been inactive for 300 years, during which humanity have fought the aliens to a stalemate and regressed to a pre-atomic level of technology. Reactivation of the advanced Bolos could turn the tide of the war. The Bolo is told to wait for a relief expedition, which is 47.128 light years away.
The story ends:
I welcome this opportunity to investigate fully a number of problems that have excited my curiousity circuits. I shall enjoy investigating the nature and origin of time and of the unnatural disciplines of so-called “entropy” which my human designers have incorporated into my circuitry.
With such philosophical thoughts in mind, the Bolo sets up its scanners, activates its processors, and cogitates on the issues. “I should have some interesting conclusions to communicate to my human superiors, when the time comes,” it concludes. This assumes, of course, that humankind won’t respond by burying it in concrete or EMP’ing it in the head.
Initial thoughts from a (younger) reader
- The technology is VERY dated. Whether it’s processing circuits, paper space-liner schedules or weird crystalline hotel keys, it’s very much a product of an earlier time;
- Laumer didn’t write that many big Bolo action sequences. When he did, they were good, but he seemed to prefer human-to-human fights. Given these are giant tank stories, I found this interesting;
- I didn’t notice any jarring sexism or racism in the first few stories. I suppose Renada is a bit passive, but I’m not the diversity-in-books police. This is noticeable, given the era;
- Laumer was REALLY good at character voices. Some of the stories have so many distinctive characters, they read almost like Cloud Atlas.
KEEN to KNOW: What did you enjoy about the Bolo books?