Tom’s novella Big Boys Don’t Cry received a nomination — indeed, was the category-leading nomination — for a Hugo award, which is apparently a very big frog in the Science Fiction fandom award pond. Tom, a retired Army officer who writes science fiction with plausible near-future military themes, is a sometime reader and commenter here, and his nominated work is a read that may be of interest to many of you.
The best of Tom’s works make you think, and may even shake your assumptions. This was the first Kratman work we actually read. In it, an artificially-intelligent, no, sentient, tank of the plausible future, tells her story as she runs through history in depot, while she awaits the latest in many cycles of overhaul, or… decommissioning and end of life.
Through the concept of the machine brain being trained for combat in virtual-reality scenarios, Tom is able to indulge his thorough knowledge of the history of war, and, not incidentally, deliver stirring combat scenes:
The enemy ranks are struck . They fall into disorder but they do not stop. Again comes the command and again we fire. Still they come at us. A chance arrow from the Hittites hits my driver in the throat. He turns to look at me. I believe he does not understand what has happened to him. His hands clutch at me and prevent me from firing. He screams, I think, though it comes out as more of an agonized gurgle , spraying red liquid across my chest and the chariot.
The horses begin to run . My driver falls off the open back of my chariot, almost pulling me with him. Oh, no! My chariot is heading directly for the enemy and I am alone.
I feel… I enquire. I feel fear. I do not want to happen to me what has happened to my driver. I do not want an arrow to sprout from my throat and make red pour from my mouth. I do not want to feel more pain. I drop the bow, grab the reins and try to turn my chariot. The horses will not turn.
The enemy closes. The horses turn on their own now. They must not want to feel pain either. I am thrown over the side as the horses twist my chariot out from under me.
I roll on the ground. Momentum overcomes control of my body. I come to rest and look up. The enemy is upon me. I scream. And then the pain comes.
I feel the horses of the enemy trample my body with their hard hooves. I hear crunching sounds coming from inside me. Chariot wheels pass over my legs and one of my arms . They break. I scream again… and scream and scream. But the pain does not stop.
The chariots are past me now. I see them through the dust of their passage. They are closing with my fellows. I do not hear the sounds of crashing over my own shrieking. My throat tires. I can scream no more. I begin to weep. “Oh, please, please, my creators, make the pain stop…. Please… oh, please.” I weep. I am alone and the pain will not stop. I cannot make it stop. Nothing makes it stop.
There is the same you-are-there feeling whether the machine brain is recalling training exercises that emulated 20th Century tank warfare, or brutal combat with nasty alien species — which is not always what it seems.
It is science fiction, so those who love or loathe that genre be forewarned. It is imaginative science fiction, in the best possible way, in that the imagination is applied to characters and to story.
There is, from time to time, political commentary in it. It is not partisan so much as it is a soldier’s view. For example:
Those early battle tanks should have been fielded sooner. But centuries of bureaucratic inertia, historically unequalled nepotism, academia-instilled pacifism, and corruption on an heroic scale, along with some even less savory factors, all contributed to a speed of deployment next to which a snail would have seemed a thoroughbred.
Still, with our planets falling to the enemy at the rate of six to eight a terrestrial year— a baker’s dozen in one particularly harsh year— even the low-grade morons of the General Staff and the moral lepers of the political branches eventually came around to the realization that bureaucratic procedures had to give way by our will, or the Nighean Ruadh would do away with them altogether. It probably didn’t hurt matters when, one Friday afternoon, following the fall of Beauharnais and the presumed deaths of almost half a billion human beings, a Washyorkston mob stormed the offices of the United Planets Organization, trampled the security guards into bloody jam and dragged to the lampposts some one hundred and twenty-seven members of the Assembly of Man. There would have been more had most of the members not signed out earlier that morning on a long paid weekend. Among the lynched were several hundred time-serving bureaucrats, sixty or seventy of whom were, at least in theory, members of the military.
If you spent even a year in uniform, that impulse (to decorate lampposts with dangling bureaucrats) surely must not be strange to you.
But the most remarkable thing is the development of the Ratha Maggie’s character, from her her first blast of innocent, joyous self-consciousness to the leaden burden of doing the bidding of her gods — humans — in war after war, in which the humans do not always act in ways one expects of gods.
To try it yourself in Kindle edition is a whopping $2.99 (actually, you might be able to borrow it for free, but we dunno how that thing works). When was the last time you blew three bucks?