Thursday, May 16, 2013

Bolos Book II: The Unconquerable, edited by Bill Fawcett

So, rather predictably I must admit, I am returning again to the Bolo series with the next anthology of short stories, The Unconquerable. Although I did not hate this installment of the Bolo universe, I did not enjoy it as greatly as I did Honor of the Regiment, and largely I think this was a matter of tone. Regardless, this book has plenty of that pulp sci-fi action which I love wrapped in a crunchy flintsteel coating.

As I mentioned, my biggest issue with this book was the theme of loss and desperate last stands that permeate the book. The tagline on the cover says "Bolos may be destroyed - they do not surrender" which initially sounds like a pretty badass boast but a couple of the stories have large-scale battles where dozens or even hundreds of bolos are destroyed, going down fighting against an endless horde of alien enemies to protect their human masters. While it is stirring that such self-sacrifice can come from hundred-ton metal monsters, I at the same time want the Bolos to win and felt their losses very acutely. Yes, I am aware that they are fictional AIs that exist merely to fight on behalf of humanity, but I feel a strong connection with these warriors and was saddened by each loss they suffered against the apparently infinite swarms of enemies.

There is also one story I did not care for because of the unfortunate undertones it seemed to carry. I will admit that I initially liked Sir Kendrick's Lady because it was nice to see Sir Kendrick and the people of Camelot again, giving a real sense of permanence to the bolo universe. The problem I had is that for much of the story we are shown how utterly frustrating life can be on Camelot, especially for women who are actively discouraged from "having ideas" and are married off, occasionally against their will. It's an incredibly sexist regime which the main character, Abigail, spends almost the entire story trying to escape by taking the Merchant Guild exam and running off to be a spacer. The problem (and pardon the spoilers) is that at the end of the story it's revealed the Merchant Guild is actually a front for a slave-trading ring which has been stealing youths from Camelot for years. At the end of the story Camelot is reaffirmed in Abigail's eyes and she rejects her dreams of becoming a spacer. (Although she does become head of port security.)

 My frustration stems from the fact that clearly there is something wrong with Camelot with its systematic gender discrimination and expectation that women fit a role which only occurred in the (highly fictional and idealized) accounts of King Arthur. Abigail even raises the legitimate point that everyone is living in a fairy tale world, but at the end of the story Camelot is the same place it always was and has be redeemed in Abigail's eyes. Quite frankly, although slavery is a horrible institution that still exists today, I do not think the slave ring in Camelot's space port was indicative of the larger galactic society beyond Camelot. Based on the information available in the other stories galactic society appears to be very progressive with numerous female soldiers and officers in the armed services working with the bolos and this isn't treated as a big deal by anyone. I was just annoyed that a culture which marries young girls against their will declared itself morally superior to a culture that practiced slavery.

Overall, despite my personal issue with the tremendous sacrifices the bolos must bear in the book, as well as the more legitimate issues with Sir Kendrick's Lady, I thought this book was a good addition to the bolo series. Perhaps not as mind-blowingly epic as Honor of the Regiment, but an entertaining way to pass the time. Definitely a must-read for fans of our mighty tank friends.

- Kalpar

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