Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Bolos and Hugos

Back when I was in High School, in the early 1970s, I loved Keith Laumer's Bolo stories about gigantic cybertanks. I later designed a war game featuring early model Bolos (MK I-III) and I did illustrations for Steve Jackson's Ogre war games, which were basically Bolos with the serial numbers filed off.

What I learned creating the war game is that gigantic supertanks are very hard to make work at all. If anti-tank missiles become much more effective than APDS, and a supertank can carry an effective point defense system against anti-tank missiles, then maybe a supertank works. But neither has happened in our timeline. In the Laumerverse MK II Bolos were already a thing by 2015. But clearly, not in our universe.

So Laumer's Cold War Bolo era stories involved a lot of handwaving away of engineering issues. Even with exactly the right technological advances, roads, bridges and airlift remain as major roadblocks. And that doesn't begin to deal with tactical nukes being consumed like popcorn. The idea of firing a nuke beneath the Bolo and leaving it inverted at the bottom of an enormous crater was never addressed to my satisfaction.

In the wargame, it turned out that the Bolos worked best as only one part of a combined arms team, and needed to be used with great caution. Optimal tactics involved shoot and scoot plinking at long range far behind the front while the mobile infantry went in advance identifying targets, with artillery support from even further back, not gleefully surging forward to grind the enemy beneath your treads.

So the near future Bolo stories have not aged well. The interstellar Bolo stories, in addition,  required a level of handwavium technology that made interstellar wars of conquest fought on the planet surface economically rational and common.

Because you need some seriously improbable magical technology to make that work, if you think about it.

Imagine the energy required to boost the Normandy Invasion to, say, .9 c and brake at the destination. Now imagine what it would take to send it on a FTL mission.

Compare that with what it would take to send a swarm of .9 c kill vehicles sufficient to sterilize one side of a planet without braking, and another half a planetary rotation later.

Orders of magnitude less, yes?

So the interstellar Bolo stories have not aged well for me, either. Too much suspension of disbelief required.

On this year's Hugo ballot there's a novella by Tom Kratman: Big Boys Don't Cry, that is essentially a Bolo pastiche with the serial numbers filed off. There was an earlier version that was much more explicitly derivative, with Bolos and Hellbores  and Infinite Repeaters. These references have been removed in the current version, but it's still derivative, and I am still currently bouncing off the original Laumerverse, so no Hugo vote from me.

To his credit, Kratman has a few interesting things to say about the ethics of treating self-aware AI as slaves, but his meatsacks are remarkably morally obtuse about the self-aware war machines they employ. Which was a problem with Laumer as well.

However, Kratman does make his meatsack villains so thoroughly stupid, corrupt and evil that they come across as cardboard black hats, leaving the feeling that Kratman has stacked his narrative deck.

Also, if I'm reading the story correctly, the black hats have a gigantic war machine with brain damage, which they decide to provide with enough power to break a weld,  power a gauss rifle and lift its 14,000 ton hull into firing position in the course of doing system diagnostics, and they also neglect to unload all of its ammunition before dragging it away to be scrapped.

Which puts them in the Hogan's Heroes zone of villains who are simultaneously very evil and very incompetent.

Also, I don't know which is sillier: the idea of giving a gigantic cybertank orgasms while it role-plays an SS tank commander as a training exercise, or gigantic cybertanks feeling uncomfortable around one of their number because it won't assume a clear male or female gender role.

Update: A previous version described the novella as Bolo fanfic rather than pastiche.

18 comments:

Tom Kratman said...

It's not fanfic until an attack becomes fanfic. This would be a new interpretation, I think, of what fanfic is and isn't. Or it The Forever War fanfic of Starship Troopers? If so, does Haldeman know?

bookandsword said...

Doesn't most '50s/'60s space opera laugh in the face of science though? I am pretty sure that most Silver Age writers who are still read knew that a future of spaceships hopping from solar system to solar system like tramp merchantmen hopping around the oceans in the 1930s was not in the cards, but they told those stories anyway because they were fun and people bought them. L. Sprague de Camp nobly refused to write about FTL travel because he could not believe in it, but plenty of other writers were not so reserved.

Will McLean said...

A lot of the '50s/'60s SF was based in science that was wrong, but not known to be obviously wrong at the time. Double Star, for instance, was written before anyone had tried to build a nuclear thermal rocket, so it is forgivable that Heinlein got their performance wrong.

Will McLean said...

Mr. Kratman:

Some have seen Forever War as a critique of Starship Troopers, although Haldeman has denied it. I personally believe Naked to the Stars was such a critique. In both cases, the world building was significantly different from the Starship Troopers universe.

As I said, you do some interesting things in the story, I just don't think it rises to Hugo level.

bookandsword said...

Were any '50s/'60s space operas where interstellar travel is about as routine as intercontinental travel between 1880 and 1939 meant to be scientifically plausible though? I never got the impression that Beam Piper believed in the physics behind the Terro-Human Future History, or Pall under Sun in the physics behind the world of van Rijn and Flandry, but postulating magical drives and armour and generators let them tell some fun stories and geek out about sociology and planteology. I don't recall if Laumer tried to separate the Retief setting and the Bolo setting before his stroke, but Retief's world is clearly not meant to be taken seriously.

Will McLean said...

Bookandsword:

I think quite a lot of the interstellar fiction of the 1950s and 1960s was seriously intended to be plausible at the time. Poul Anderson really tried to get the science right in his serious stories, for example. But they don't stand up well in retrospect. His Time Lag, for example, doesn't contradict Einstein, but still has improbable NAFAL tech and an interstellar war that makes no economic sense at all, given the technology explicit in the story.

Tom Kratman said...

Well, surely it's not up there with "If you were a dinosaur, my love." And, as fiction, it's clearly not as fictive as, say, "We have always fought." (By the way, does anyone know where Shaka's dreaded female impis were stationed on the perimeter at the Battle of Gqokli Hill?)

IN any case, my point stands: 1) An attack is not fanfic; 2) this was an attack; hence, 3) this was not fanfic.

Will McLean said...

Mr. Kratman:

We must agree to disagree about how far one can go in subverting the assumptions of the original and still be fanfic, but on consideration I have decided that pastiche is more appropriate, and edited the post accordingly.

Tom Kratman said...

Don't know that "pastiche" works, either, since it seems to imply approval, rather than attack.

Tom Kratman said...

Addendum: No need whatsoever to vote for anything of mine, since if interest were a liquid, my interest in a Hugo wouldn't fill a thimble.

Will McLean said...
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Will McLean said...

I don't think pastiche necessarily requires wholesale approval for the original. It's more respectful than parody, but can have elements that completely contradict canon. For example, in The Seven-Per-Cent solution, Moriarty's criminal career is entirely a drug-induced delusion on the part of Holmes.

Tom Kratman said...

Not having read The Seven Percent Solution, question: Is it an attack that undermines the entire moral theme of the Sherlock-verse?

Will McLean said...
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Will McLean said...

I would say that Moriarty not actually being a criminal at all is a huge subversion of canon.

But to return to Bolos. I haven't reread them in some time, but my memory is that some of the stories suggest that Laumer himself was not entirely comfortable with treating them as slaves. Characters in the stories often acted like they were mere machines, but I don't think that was Laumer's own view.

Your thoughts?

Tom Kratman said...

I wrote this up for an interview recently:

"There's something in Keith Laumer's Boloverse - well, two related things - that suddenly struck me as making no sense whatsoever. These were the pain and pleasure circuits. He rarely described them or how they acted, and never in any real detail, but sort of brushed by them with the notion that they were necessary for proper battlefield performance.

This was, I realized, horse manure. They would be nothing but a distraction in a sentient fighting machine, in action. They would, however, I also realized, be very useful if the machines couldn't be simply programmed, but had to be trained.

Once that hit me, I started thinking about the whys of the thing. That led to the training program the Ratha's are put through. From that, the sheer rottenness of much of mankind - think here of former Virginia Tech Football Players and pit bulls - just suggested itself."

End of copy and paste.

Laumer's Bolos are often quite human, and even more so in the 5 or so volumes of fanfic that Baen published in the 90s, IIRC. But he and they never get to the how of it, nor the whys of the pain and pleasure circuits.

The stories touch us because of a liberal meme - yes, they even touch me, and the only liberal bone in my body isn't, strictly speaking, a bone at all - which is, I _think_, that presumption of easy and reliable malleability in a sentient being.

Will McLean said...

Mr. Kratman:

I personally have a hard time enjoying the giant cybertank trope at this time. Nothing personal. But I commend you for your willingness to engage with the ethical issues.

I did think the meatsacks issuing unethical orders were a bit unsubtle about where they fell on the good/evil spectrum.

Tom Kratman said...

Not all wicked people are subtle.