A fortnight ago, as part of my ‘Taking on the Boloverse’ project, I blogged about The Unconquerable, the second in a series of military sci-fi books set in the Bolo shared universe. This week, I’m going to talk about The Triumphant, the third in the Bolo series.
The Triumphant contains four stories, mostly written by Linda Evans. Her writing was a genuinely pleasant surprise. Moreover, I could see some of the inspiration behind Tom Kratman’s Big Boys Don’t Cry (BBDC).
The Farmer’s Wife
Unlike The Long, Dark Goodnight… well, there are lots of differences from my story… The Farmer’s Wife is about Mayor Tillie Matson whose two-week voyage to Matson’s World becomes a twenty-one-year mission when their ship, Star Cross, is attacked by the Xykdap (henceforth to be known as Consonants R’Us).
Tillie Matson’s colony ship is carrying farmers, kids (non-goat), goats, chickens and other livestock. Although this reminded me of Firefly, it raised the crucial question of why they didn’t just print artificial meat. But, hey ho, the story was written in 1995.
Anyway, after the Consonant Descendancy attack (okay, they’re not called that), the ship is left without propulsion, comms or navigation. Most of the crew are dead, and it’s up to the remaining colonists to use their agricultural skills to survive. Several families kill themselves in despair.
In the meantime, Digger, a Mark XX Model M Bolo, is working as a pest control specialist on Matson’s World. He’s left behind when the humans evacuate, and – for the next twenty years – uses genetically-modified toxic nematodes to destroy the Consonant invaders.
The story ends with farmer’s wife Matson stepping off the ship to find Digger waiting for her. He reveals that the Consonants look like blind mice, in a callback to the old nursery rhyme.
The Farmer’s Wife is a great survival story that, somewhat disappointingly, skips the entire twenty-year journey of the wounded Star Cross. The ship’s arrival was so sudden that I turned back a couple of pages to check I didn’t miss anything. That said, it did have some great moments. As a mum of young kids, I loved the scene where an ENTIRE nursery of toddlers and babies were bundled into spacesuits. It has to be the cutest thing I’ve read recently. So cute, in fact, that I promptly looked for a spacesuit for the Redheaded Reference Toddler*.
[*I ordered a NASA ‘Payload Specialist’ babygrow to illustrate this blogpost, but – sadly – it hasn’t arrived yet. So, you’re just going to have to imagine the Redheaded Reference Toddler in a NASA spacesuit with a bubble helmet instead].
Little Red Hen
Tom doesn’t say Little Red Hen by Linda Evans and Robert R. Hollingsworth inspired Magnolia in BBDC, but I noticed some thematic resemblances. This is the tale of Ish Matsuro, former commander of a Mark XX Bolo called Red.
Matsuro is madly in love with Red (WTF?! I mean WTFF?! She’s a tank…!) and devastated when she fails to recognise him after being badly damaged in battle. It seems that Red had her memory wiped by one of her crew, William DeVries, Doug Hart or Aduwa Banjul. Sadly, the crew died in the battle, and the technician who arrives on a scrap/salvage mission assumes she’s gone insane.
As Red trundles back to the depot, she muses upon the dead ‘children’ still inside her hull. She doesn’t think she killed them, but can’t explain why her rear sensors are intact when, as a reconnaissance tank, she’s programmed to flee the enemy.
The next chapter skips back in time, to follow Red as she’s dropped onto the planet with a group of largely-interchangeable crewmen. Their mission is to scout a fully-automated mining facility to estimate the strength and attack plans of the Deng (Evans’ recurrent dog-spider aliens). The tank waits near a river for the aliens to lose interest, while playing cards with the crew (using manipulator arms inside the cabin). She also cooks them brownies and pie in her food processor. When DeVries becomes anxious, she gives him a sedative and a pep talk. Soon, her ‘Dismount Team’ sets off on reconnaissance and her watches ‘her boys’ with her sensors, anxiously monitoring their vital signs and, otherwise, acting like their mechanical mom.
Suddenly, the Dismount Team are spotted by a contingent of Deng Yavacs (armoured vehicles on jointed legs). Red, who is programmed to feel responsible for ‘her boys’, desperately tries to save them. She is badly damaged in the fight, and her crew and commander are fatally injured. Aware that Red is consumed with guilt for their deaths, DeVries spends his last moments erasing her memory.
Skipping back to the future, Matsuro also realises what happened.
Soon, [he] would make his report on the psychological stability of Mark XXI Special Units. Would note that their programming for a high degree of responsibility had – under battle stress – essentially forced Red to take the steps she’d taken to rescue her crew, engaging when engagement seemed an insane course of action, driven by her responsibility circuit to grieve so deeply that she had dared anything to rescue even one of her crew alive.
He would recommend that Unit LRH-1313 be awarded the highest honours for valour in the face of overwhelming odds. He would also recommend that all active Bolo Mark XXI Special Units be reprogrammed immediately to correct this glitch. Would ask, humbly, that Unit LRH-1313 be exonerated of all pending charges and be retired honourably from service.The one thing that he wouldn’t put into words was his conviction that Red had wanted to die simply because – in the manner of mothers who had lost children – she had loved her crew too much to continue living without them.
Ish knew exactly how she felt.
Matsuro never gets the chance to retire Red. After finding the Canasta cards she played with DeVries (‘Canasta’ is a password), she reclaims her memories. Knowing that Matsuro loves her, and would destroy his career to save her, she destroys her personality forever. For he was her ‘only surviving child’.
Little Red Hen is undoubtedly my favourite Bolo story in the four anthologies I’ve read, potentially because I can see the relevance to BBDC. I was confused how Magnolia ‘cooked’ for ‘her boys’ at the beginning of BBDC. Yes, I imagined spindly robotic arms (and a pinny). I was also curious about a robot who chose to self-define as female.
In addition, there are several interesting moral and ethical questions in Little Red Hen about the implications of giving AIs ‘caring’ or ‘protective’ instincts. Such traits are ‘natural’ for humans and other mammals, but not for AIs – yet they have an important social function. What happens if you give a battle robot the capacity for ‘comradeship’? Is this maladaptive or not? Are some behaviours ‘expected’ for humans, but ‘insane’ in AIs*?
[*I recommend Outside the Wire (below) on Netflix, which also touches on some of these questions]
Little Dog Gone
Little Dog Gone, also by Linda Evans, is the tale of Gawain, the last surviving Bolo of the Dinochrome Brigade on planet XGD7798-F. After being damaged, Gawain spends 200 years defending the entrance to a human fort. One day, he is reactivated by Kalima Tennyson, an aspiring engineer.
Kalima, her intelligent nanny dog Sufi, boyfriend Bradley and his dog Shiva work on slowly repairing the Bolo. Before they can finish their work, however, the Deng invade again and injure Shiva. The only way to get Gawain fully functional is to surgically weld the dog to the Bolo. Both the animal, and the Bolo, are fatally damaged in the assault. They go to their deaths nobly, and with honour, with Kalima going along to say her goodbyes.
I admit, I cried at this one. What can I say? Linda Evans is good at writing about dogs…
Miles to Go
Miles to Go by David Weber is another story about a Bolo falling in love with their commander.
In this story, Nike, a female-identifying Bolo, has spent eighty years in storage on a backwater farming planet. She is reactivated by Captain Paul Merrit, a recently-court-martialled commander of the Dinochrome Brigade.
Merrit is nervous about reactivating the Bolo. He understands that Bolos have a low ‘IQ’ outside of battle, due to the safeguards needed to constrain their freedom of action. Early Bolos, in particular, had ‘bloodthirsty’ personalities, which means they weren’t safe to leave ‘sleeping’. As a result, the Concordiat has spent a lot of time burning out the command centres of old, inactive Bolo models.
To his surprise, Merrit discovers that Bolo XXIII/B-007S-NKE is an experimental prototype who was deployed onto Santa Cruz with an automatous maintenance and repair facility. She has moral capabilities, which means she can decide not to kill out of compassion. She is more aware than a modern Bolo, but – also – has fewer failsafes against damage. This means she has more chance of going rogue.
Merrit decides not to tell his command about Nike’s capabilities. Instead, he gives her opportunities to explore the world around her. For example, letting her reading library files instead of going into standby mode. Over time, he falls in love with her… and she falls in love with him (WTF?! I mean WTFF?!).
Anyway, an EVULZ corporation, GalCorp, decides to invade Santa Cruz as part of a land/parking dispute. They hire a bunch of smelly, disreputable mercenaries and equip them with (non-sentient) Golem tanks. Realising that a Bolo is on the planet, the lead EVULZ corporate dude, Gerard Osterwelt, hires a corrupt army officer, Sanders, to deactivate Nike.
[*These smelly, disreputable chaps do *not* have sentient giant tanks… SHAME!].
Luckily, Merrit realises Sanders is acting suspicious. Less luckily, he’s fatally injured while fighting Sanders and his GalCorp handlers. He flees into the jungle to warn Nike, who is carrying out battle manoeuvres. Unfortunately, despite Merrit’s best efforts, Sanders manages to get Nike’s command codes. Nike defies his orders, activating a personality-destroying Omega worm. In her dying moments, she destroys the invading mercenaries – reciting Merrit’s favourite poem as she does.
The interesting bit of this story is Nike’s musings on duty and immortality. She believes she will die in battle or be deactivated as obsolete. She also accepts she’s a machine designed to be expendable in humanity’s service:
A Bolo is a machine, a construct, a weapon of war, and its Commander’s ability to commit that machine to combat, even to that which he knows must mean its inevitable destruction, must not be compromised. We are humanity’s warrior-servants, comrades and partners in battle, perhaps, but never more than that. We must not become more than that, lest our Commanders refuse to risk us – as my Commander attempted to do on Sandlot.
I found that believable, yet also harsh and troubling. I found the idea that she would fall in love with Merrit somewhat less believable. Why would she? Humans fall in love because (making a generalisation here) we’re monogamous mammals with an instinct to breed – whether we choose to or not.
Bolos do not have, or need, to evolve breeding instincts. They are manufactured, not self-assembled. Love, for them, also has no purpose. Forbidden love strained my suspension of disbelief… as did David Weber’s attempts to inject some inappropriate eroticism into this scene:
Spray from the sixty-meter waterfall rode the gentle wind, occasionally splattering Nike’s ceramic appliques with crystal-beaded rainbows and cooling the jungle’s breath as it caressed Merrit’s bare, bronzed torso.
Reader, I visualised the lady married to a chandelier.
The authors who write Bolos falling in love with humans are making the mistake of assuming any advanced intelligence would have human-like emotional responses to human stimuli. Then, I wondered if Bolos fell in love with each other. And, then, I couldn’t help wondering about the, erm, mechanics of this type of thing…
There’s also a unaddressed question of how Nike can muse upon duty and military discipline while fraternising with her commanding officer. This would be a court martial-able offence between humans, never mind between a human and a tank.
The Triumphant ends with an appendix full of technical Bolo specifications. I was amused that it took until 2209 to have a Bolo with a single crew member (thanks to Chris DiNote for the link) and until 3113 for them to learn how to hack computer systems. Admittedly, there’s a 100-year period of societal collapse in the 21st century, but – with the first Bolos deployed in 2015 – you’d think they would have redeveloped machine learning and data sharing by the year 2869…