I plunked down $2.99 for Tom Kratman’s novella “Big Boys Don’t Cry” during yesterday’s ”book bomb” pushing novellas on the Sad Puppies slate, because I just can’t stand on the sidewalk when the parade goes by. Sometimes this leads to good things. I bought Redshirts a couple years ago because of the social media campaign and it turned out to be pretty good. Can lightning strike twice?
Maggie, the protagonist of “Big Boys Don’t Cry,” is a Ratha — a sentient armored weapons platform, the human race’s ultimate ground combat unit. Spoiler warning: She’s not a boy. And apparently she can cry.
As a big fan of Keith Laumer’s original Bolo stories, as well as Elizabeth Bear’s 2008 Hugo-winning ”Tideline”, I find Kratman’s variation compelling because he asks important questions about intelligent, self-aware tanks the earlier classics never investigated.
Like: Why do artificial intelligences subject themselves to human command? Why do they sacrifice themselves for human interests?
This is something Iain Banks answered minimally about the Culture’s intelligent ships. His answer seemed to be – well, you just program them to. Kratman feels the question deserves to be addressed in far more horrifying detail.
And the horror of Kratman’s explanation is convincing for as long as you’re reading. (Somewhat the same way I believe in Ann Leckie’s ancillaries til I close the book.) Only afterwards did I wonder about Ratha training – would any culture deliberately choose such a crude process, or is the author being satirical? Quite possibly the latter, for Kratman calls the whole story a “deconstruction of that liberal meme on the easy, certain, and reliable programming of altruism in sentient beings.”
Yes, he’s more than a little contemptuous of these fictional forerunners. Even in choosing his title, “Big Boys Don’t Cry.” Do you remember the first line of Bear’s “Tideline”?
Chalcedony wasn’t built for crying. She didn’t have it in her, not unless her tears were cold tapered-glass droplets annealed by the inferno heat that had crippled her.
Well, Kratman’s Maggie – short for Magnolia – may be fearless but she is not unfeeling, as he shows with a mosaic of combat action scenes that begin with her last mission and, once she’s consigned to salvage, move through progressively earlier memories.
My lone complaint about the story is that after beginning with a splendid action scene, Kratman brings everything to an ass-grinding halt to deliver an Encyclopedia Galactica-type info dump.
Then he does it a second time.
Who started this trope anyway? I know Asimov used it in Foundation. Plenty of pulp writers have done it. But, jeepers, is it hard to tolerate, especially when we don’t need the info Kratman is dumping. Which isn’t to say it was uninteresting, it’s just not doing work, and it interrupts the entertainment something fierce.
Fortunately, he soon abandons that pattern and lets the reader enjoy the things he does best. Describing combat. Illustrating the warrior’s psychology. Casting aspersions on bureaucrats. And proving how dangerous it is to abuse the loyalty of a veteran soldier.