Taking on the Boloverse: The Unconquerable – Bolos Book 2

A few months ago, I began my ‘Taking on the Boloverse’  project and blogged about Honor of the Regiment, the first in a series of military sci-fi books set in the Bolo shared universe.

This week, I’m going to talk about The Unconquerable, the second in the Bolo series. The book, an anthology of seven stories, was originally published in 1994: a year after Keith Laumer died. Jim Baen, founder of Baen Books, supported Laumer through his final years. Baen got the rights to publish Bolo books from that.

As discussed in previous instalments of ‘Taking on the Boloverse’, the Bolo stories inspired Tom Kratman’s novella, Big Boys Don’t Cry (BBDC). This novella criticises Boloverse tropes, such as how humans mistreat the Bolo supertanks and program them to be ‘perfect’ soldiers. I’m collaborating with Tom to (hopefully) turn BBDC into a novel and am reading the Bolo series for research.

Ancestral Voices

Because every story needs a random human sacrifice to the volcano God…
Ancestral Voices is the sequel to Lost Legion, a story about US soldier Bethany Martins who escapes a fictional South American country with the help of a Mark III Bolo. Also written by S. M. Stirling, the (unnamed) Bolo in Lost Legion is mostly memorable for the juxtaposition between its sultry female voice and its stereotypically-male ‘tankness’. Here, in Ancestral Voices, the tank is barely present. Instead, the story mostly focuses on Martins’ team as they scavenge for food after a global apocalypse of some kind.

In the story, Martins’ team enter a town to discover an elderly geophysicist who has reintroduced Aztec blood sacrifice to the locals. The old man captures the soldiers and, using his volcano-spewing devices, covers the Bolo with lava. Fortunately, molten rock is insufficient to stop a determined Bolo. The Mark III rescues the hapless Martins, just as her heart is about to be torn out, and terrorises the villagers into accepting her as their queen.

If Woke Twitter got hold of Ancestral Voices, they’d cancel everything, up to and including the volcano, for being a hostile stereotype of central Mexico. They wouldn’t be entirely wrong, either..

The less said about this story, the better.

Sir Kendrick’s Lady

Mean Girls film poster. Credit to Paramount Pictures for this image.

A sequel to Camelot in Honor of the Regiment, by Shariann Lewitt, Sir Kendrick’s Lady is the story of a spoilt 17-year-old ‘Mean Girl’ who is SOOO TOTALLY OVER living in a pseudo-medieval settlement defended by a giant tank. When she is invited to a Queen of Love and Beauty pageant adjudicated by Kenny the supertank (WTF?! I mean, WTFF?!), she decides to head off into town with her Clueless friend Margaret – who wants to join the Spacer’s Guild.

Clueless film poster. Copyright Paramount Pictures.

Anyhow, Margaret is lured into a pirate gang who launch a raid on the pageant. The tank shoots them, saves Margaret and defends the settlement with Mean Girl Abby riding his fender. In a twist ending, it turns out kids who’d previously left to join the Spacer’s Guild were actually sold to slavers. Abby decides she’d rather be wearing a fancy frock while LARPing Camelot, and so the story ends.

Again, this story has a serious lack of tanks and a major surfeit of American high schoolers. I read the entire thing, imagining it narrated by a teenage Alicia Silverstone in Valley Girl slang.

You’re It

Penned by Canadian author Shirley Meier, You’re It is among my favourite stories in this anthology. A lone Mark XXIX Bolo is on the run from the Xi-Shang Empire, who have invaded the backwater swamp planet of New Newf.

Laura, the Bolo, has several problems. She’s the only Bolo deployed to New Newf, a planet the Concordiat thought no one would invade. Her hellbore is broken and she needs technician Sven (no, not *that* Sven) to fix it. Worse than that, however, they’re being chased by a Kai-Sabre, a Xi-Shang Bolo clone that wants to “crush the Enemy undertread”.

Laura and Sven have one advantage. The swamp is full of Ogopogos (and I *loved* the Ogopogos), which are apparently Canadian lake monsters – a bit like Nessie here in the UK. The ‘pogos have similar radar traces to Bolos and, moreover, people hiding in ‘pogo shells are hard to detect*. Cue a cat-and-mouse hide-and-seek adventure with a feverish Sven (and Laura) attempting to evade the hunting ‘Sabre tank.

[*NB: If you’re into mythical monsters, I have a short story in The Founder Effect]

You’re It ends with a dramatic chase sequence, with the Kai-Sabre chasing Laura, who tries to hide within a stampeding herd of ‘pogos as a dying Sven desperately struggles to repair the hellbore. This leads to a brilliant example of human-Bolo miscommunication:

His voice rose, almost hysterically. “I also usually have a steady floor. Repairs on the run are somewhat more difficult. In other words, Laura, go piss up a rope!”
“That order is impossible to obey, Tech. I do not have a urinary tract. I do not have a rope. Also, the gravitational properties of this world do not allow urination up. Suggest alternatives-”
“Just shut up!” That she could obey.

That’s 100% the best bit of the story, after the bit where Xi-Shang Commander Lung shoots an over-promoted flunky with his replica Lugar, and then pretends the guy’s been sniped.

Shared Experience 

A still from Howl’s Moving Castle by Studio Ghibli. The Xalontese, a great creation, remind me of the mutated, monstrous wizards from this film.

Shared Experience by the late Christopher Stasheff opens with a brilliant action sequence. A Bolo called Titan watches his comrades melt into charred slag as fire pours down from egg spaceships with lightning legs. Rampart is the first to die, his hellbore melting as he screams “Avenge me!” Merlon is the next to be melted away as her guns sweep the slope clear of her Xalontese enemies. “Remember me! Revenge!” she shouts, as she melts away.

Bulwark, Donjon and Chateau meet similar fates, destroyed by heavy fire from Xalontese egg ships, which spew out thousands of flying lizards, armed with guns and talons. One has to wonder why each Bolo engages the Xalontese individually, rather than joining forces for a concentrated attack (maybe it’s just the way Titan remembers it…). But the reader has no time to ponder such tactical niceties, as Titan roars out of his repair shed and leads the Xalontese forces away from the remnants of humanity, including bickering gunner couple Larry and Dawn.

After acing further battles with the hovering Xalontese, thanks to the collective memories of his dead comrades, Titan transports the gunners to a nearby fort. He lures the remaining few thousand Xalontese to a pit where he, and they, fall to their doom – saving humanity in the process.

Great imagery. Not convinced that we needed to see *all* of Titan’s comrades die though…

The Murphosensor Bomb

There are a couple of scenes in BBDC where Magnolia and her supertank colleagues are fighting for their lives while, a short distance behind the frontline, their human commanders stand about drinking and flirting like they’re at a football match. I thought this was totally ridiculous…

…And, then, I read Karen Wehrstein’s Murphosensor Bomb

This story opens with a brigadier-general taking his wife on a DINNER DATE into a planet-wide battle. They clink wine glasses. They flirt. And, outside the soft comfort of their cockpit, their poor Bolo Casey is shot up by the alien Djanni.

Reader, I felt sorry for Casey.

Unfortunately for Casey, his brain is subsequently fritzed by a computer virus. He is melted by the Djanni and in, an example of cosmic karma, the love birds are fatally irradiated. Sadly for the reader, in their dying moments, they decide – entirely implausibly IMO – to fuck.

The rest of the story involves genius technician Benzi (who, for some reason, everyone refers to as ‘girl’) trying to find the computer virus before it takes all the Bolos offline. She is aided in her quest by Max, a Bolo who’s malfunctioned to sense human empathy (yeah… right). Benzi discovers the virus was an inside job and her suspiciously well-dressed (and treacherous) colleague is dragged off, kicking and screaming. And so the story, thankfully, ends.

Legacy

Legacy, by Todd Johnson, I found much more believable (in so far as far-future sci-fi about giant sentient tanks is believable), although it does contain a very strange, dated trope. In this story, survey officer Erena is hiding underground with a group of young children and a dying bevvy of nanomachines. In the return of the ‘buried Arthurian Bolo’ trope from the original Laumer stories, a Mark XXIX Bolo is uncovered by the nuclear explosions and sets off to save humanity – at the cost of Erena’s life.

The baffling element of this story is that Erena has no idea what ‘war’, ‘attack’ or ‘violence’ are. It appears she belongs to a Perfect Pacifist People, a trope that was common in the era of original Star Trek, but which seems to have dropped out of fashion. I suspect it was originally a reaction to the development of nukes and the Cold War. People believed that no future war was possible, because all wars would invariably go nuclear. In the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, however, we’ve seen multiple wars – nukes or no nukes, and the idea of future societies adopting pacifism now seems rather quaint.

Endings

The last story, Endings, by William Forstchen, is another of my favourites in this anthology. In the far future, when humanity have been destroyed in a galactic war, Sherman the Bolo wakes up from stasis to discover the last surviving Melconians. After a chase and some misunderstandings, he eventually faces up, doggo-a-tanko, to Melconian General Drak Na-Drak.

“General Drak Na-Drak, I am Sherman, 4th of the 9th Dinochrome Brigade and I demand your surrender.”
Drak smiled and finally shook his head. “Go to hell.”
Sherman, taken aback, said nothing for a long moment.
War is hell, it had once been said, and we were the demons that created it.
“We’re already in hell,” Sherman finally replied.

And so, Sherman blasts off the planet, leaving the aliens that were once Melconians in peace.

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