Tuesday, April 28, 2015

SNARL: Big Boys Don't Cry

There has been a big kerfluffle about the Hugo awards in Science Fiction this year, and most of it has been about the political and cultural implications of the works and the award process. At this point we have a set of nominees. I will be voting in August for which author will take home the coveted rocket-shaped Hugo trophy(s). This is the second of several actual reviews by me of those nominated works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of: "Big Boys Don’t Cry", Tom Kratman (Castalia House)

This novell is not awful. I would even call it readable. In plainer terms; after reading this novella you should not feel the desire to scoop your brains out with a plastic spoon in the hopes of removing the residue of having read it.  After the last Hugo-award-nominated novella that alone earns this story at least one star. There are other worthwhile elements of the story, and by the end of this review it will have earned a total of 3 stars (out of 10).

This story takes place in a bolo-type universe. For those of you not familiar this refers to a series of short stories written by Keith Laumer starting in 1960 with the short story “Combat Unit” (though the term "Bolo" does not appear until 1966 in the story "The Last Command"). The Bolos are huge (thousands of tons) cybernetic super tanks. They have super pre-programmed abilities, simplistic emotions, and kick major ass. One of the major drawbacks of Bolos are that they are almost unstoppable, and page-after-page of them overwhelmingly destroying much lesser opponents gets rather tedious. It was almost tedious in Laumer’s original stories, and though he earned two Hugo and four Nebula nominations, none of them were for a Bolo story.

Kratman calls his Bolos “Ratha” for some reason. A Ratha is a type of top-heavy-looking religious cart used in some Hindu festivals. In the opening battle(s) the matronly Ratha named “Maggie” (or Magnolia) fights an alien described as “slugs”; I almost thought I was in for an interesting twist with a large ceremonial cart fighting an agricultural pest. We are at a point in the development of SF where the use of a classic Boloverse could be an interesting vehicle for the examination of subtle and profound ideas (like in AI or cyberpunk). Kratman gets another star for successfully creating a Boloverse-story at a time when it might be very interesting to do so.

The story is schizophrenic. Intense battle scenes are interspersed with morality vignettes. There are a couple of places where Kratman expounds on Rathaverse technical details; like musing over the decision to use tracked or antigrav or some type of hybrid propulsion system. Then Kratman goes on to ignore plausibility without explanation to try and make the Ratha appear more badass than even traditional Bolo. For instance, he has a Ratha calculate the time of arrival of an incoming salvo to six significant figures (4.23963 seconds), and then describes the salvo as resulting in the combined impact of six to ten close detonations of Hiroshima-level atomic bombs, and then goes on to point out that more than 60% of the Ratha’s ablative armor is still intact.

“Magnolia… report … report follows. I… have sustained six… close… nuclear bursts in the fifteen to twenty-five… kiloton range. Ablative armor… down by thirty-seven percent.” – Ratha Magnolia (Maggie) reports her condition after nuclear salvo.

The battle scenes get tedious, but I do find battle scenes to be tedious for the most part. I suppose these battle scenes are less tedious than some, and so I give this story one more star for the battle scenes.

The story really starts to come apart during the morality vignettes. Several of them announce some major issue as if it makes sense, and then proceed to let the story go on as if there were no glaring questions or implications left dangling in the wind. The vignette in the first chapter describes 113 years of an anti-human genocide campaign by the fuzzy praying-mantis-like aliens called the Nighean Ruadh. The NR were destroying “Six to eight”, and as many as thirteen, entire planets every terrestrial year. After one planet (Beauharnais) falls a group of Washyorkstons kill a hundred-some-odd security guards and politicians (dragged to the lampposts) to … do what exactly? Do they start a revolution? Do they convince the political establishment of some set of unstated demands? Do they have no effect at all? Do they plunge the human world into a chaos they barely escape from? And how does any of this happen?

In another vignette a commander is a poor commander because he is too busy –presumably- having sex with a redhead than commanding.

The vignettes are not stitched together well. It is as if Kratman is trying to get across a system of morality and belief in a way that only someone with the same system of morality and belief would understand. Each vignette might stand for something if it were more developed, but developing them more might make them sound ridiculous or something? In the final analysis the part of the story where real literary impact could have at least been attempted was spent half-developing some undecipherable moral structure. He could have picked up 6 or 7 stars here, but he only gets one

Finaly the programmed-for-obedience Ratha, damaged beyond repair, frags a group of human officers. There are so many really great reasons for this Ratha to frag the officers. One could even develop a PTSD thread from the interminable battle scenes, but Kratman chooses “none of the above”. The final straw is that they wish to reclaim the metal which the Ratha was made of ;"And now they argue over who gets the price of my bones". It could even be that she resents her humans for trying to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks”.

The end of a good SF novella is a place tailor-made for contemplation and discovery. The end of this felt more like immature retribution.

Over, and over again, this story came close to delivering, and then fell short. There was so much promise in this story. It may have gotten fewer stars from me because this failure to deliver disappointed me. However, this is a Hugo nominated work, and as such it should not fail to deliver.


Tom Kratman said...

Nah; Ratha is a Hindi word for a cart but also for a kind of chariot. You can find cognates in the German "Rad," for wheel, and likely the English "radius." As to why someone might want to name a war machine for a Chariot, who knows; perhaps I was drinking or something.

adult onset atheist said...

The cognate offspring of radius are usually thought of as arising from Latin, not Sanskrit. Radius, Radian, Rad... these are all linked to the concept of the ray. Ratha on the other hand is a Rigvedic (the most sacred ancient language of the Veda scripture) word that does not describe the war chariots made famous in movies like Ben-Hur. It is interesting that you chose that name for your war-machine AIs.

Tom Kratman said...

And Latin arose from? And you were unaware then, that Latin and Greek and Urdu and Iranian all arise from another proto-tongue? Ratha is, in any case, two things, a cart and a chariot.

That's a racing chariot in Ben Hur, actually, war chariots having been fairly obsolete long before the setting of the movie.

Odd, no doubt, to name one war machine for another. I could have called them "barrels," I suppose, but Turtledove had taken that. Do you have, perchance, the name - presumably a different word - used by the Aryan conquerors (speaking of proto-tongues) of India for their chariots? This, for example - https://www.academia.edu/8124527/India_of_the_Vedic_Texts - at 94 seems to say that the word was used for both wagon and chariot, but what does he know?

adult onset atheist said...

Yes, I was aware that Latin, Greek, Persian and Urdu arose from another language, and that the war chariot was used extensively by several of those cultures that spoke those languages. I believe the proto-Indo-Iranian language (4th millenium BCE) also gave rise to the Vedic Sanskrit (2nd to 1st millennium BCE). The Vedas 1st use the word “ratha”, and though they use it for a wheeled vehicle I do not think the word is related to the word “radius” derived from Latin.

I do not see how it really matters how I got to the point where I found your choice of a name interesting. Either through my understanding of the common modern usage of the word with its roots in ancient texts, or through your visualization of an etymology for the word allowing it to describe war chariots. I read it, and found it interesting. Most authors don’t consider their readers ignorant for finding elements of their work interesting, but if you want to consider me ignorant then be my guest.

Tom Kratman said...

You observed I called them Rathas for some reason, impliedly because you couldn't determine the reason. I gave you the reason and explained why they were not just top heavy religious artifacts. Just that.

Tom Kratman said...

As for cognates that are somewhat indirect, cintepmplate the Latin for the work, "Veho," meaning "I carry" and pronounced Wey-ho, and the word "wagon," which, interestingly, carries.

If you nose around with the google search "rad ratha radius" you'll find a number of suggestions that they are cognates. I, of course, am at best an amateur with regard to such matters, but it seemed plausible to me.

Tom Kratman said...

Man, I hate typos.


adult onset atheist said...

The problem with insisting that there is an obvious (to a reader) connection between ratha and the war chariots that populate so much history (especially 1700 - 500 BCE)is that the sanskrit and Persian-Iranian languages split off from the rest of the languages birthed from the proto-Indo-Iranian language before the chariot was invented. They could have a common ancestor concept, but the connection to a lost unwritten precursor word is not at all obvious, and that originating concept was probably not "war chariot" or even "cart of some sort". Sanskrit has over a dozen words that loosely translate to chariot, and the word ratha has a specific widely understood meaning, and as such conjures a specific image in the mind of readers who were familiar with the word, and that could reasonably include 20% of the world's population. The lengths you are going to to provide a connection show that the connection is far from obvious even if it is there, and I am not willing to state that it is not there; just that it really does not jump out of your prose for a reader.

adult onset atheist said...

Your story inspired connections to me that were worthwhile. I am glad I read it, and I am sorry that I read it in the context of being a Hugo-nominated work. I would have loved to offhandedly report to my colleagues that work with AI that the Bolo-AI is alive, and a useful vehicle for describing AI-related concepts. As a re-interpretation of the boloverse at a time when that sort of concept is especially useful your story works. I also honestly think you came close to delivering a really worthwhile story several times. Based on reading this I think this story was used to fill an agenda, and that was a disservice to you as a writer; especially since I can easily imagine derivatives of this story that could be worthy Hugo contenders based solely on their intrinsic merits, and this pseudo-nomination may have hobbled their chances.