Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Wednesday Short: Tom Kratman's Big Boys Don't Cry

I love me some sapient war machines. I have not yet plowed through the entirety of the Boloverse (started by Keith Laumer and continued by others), but the stories I have read have all successfully inspired sympathy for AI characters who could kill the hell out of me if they considered me a threat. Indeed, a few Bolo stories have actually made me cry -- over ginormous tanks bristling with weaponry, no less!

Here's the thing, though: From what I've seen, the Bolo stories are, with only a few exceptions, very optimistic. The relationship between man and machine? That's generally portrayed in a positive light. Bolos will, without hesitation, sacrifice themselves for their squishy, breakable human commanders because their programming includes all the features of the "ideal" soldier, including an overwhelming sense of duty to the regiment. But is there a possible dark side to this entire concept?

Enter Tom Kratman and his recently published novella, Big Boys Don't Cry. In Big Boys Don't Cry, we get to peek at the memories of a Bolo-like AI character named Magnolia who is currently being dismantled for scrap, and what emerges is a disturbing subversion of the Bolo trope. Magnolia does feel affection for the rank-and-file human soldiers who, at one time, served with her, but her human commanders feel nothing in return. In their eyes, Magnolia is just a machine that they can manipulate at will; they don't really recognize her sapience, nor do they appreciate that she can feel both emotional and physical pain.

As much as I love the Boloverse, I think Kratman's addition to the conversation is immensely valuable and all-too-likely. Let's face it: It takes a monumental effort to cultivate in man a genuine sympathy for the "Other." Until recently, I think our own civilization was on the cusp of accomplishing such a feat -- but in the end, it has proved far too easy to fall back on our tribal instincts. Would we, upon beholding an intelligent tank, actually recognize that tank's consequent rights? Maybe not. Hell -- we have trouble enough recognizing the rights of beings whose humanity is blindingly obvious!

The other sad reality Kratman ably captures is how often military men are betrayed by their leaders and their societies. Soldiers are sometimes deployed for unjustifiable reasons -- and they are sometimes abused and discarded upon their return. In light of both historical and current events, the palpable anger that leaps off the pages of this story definitely resonates.

In sum? Some have suggested that Big Boys Don't Cry should be nominated for the Hugo in 2015, and yes -- I personally think it is a potential contender. Granted, if you are extremely attached to the Boloverse, this may not be a good choice for you, but I would urge you to keep an open mind, as this novella's critical look at man's attitudes in re: AI is certainly worth the price of admission.

Final Verdict: Highly Recommended.

1 comment:

  1. It also helps, I think, that (at least to a naive observer) it seems like exactly the opposite sort of story from what one expects of LTC Kratman.