Once again the mighty Bolos shall grace the pages of Kalpar's Arsenal in the last of the numbered installments in the series, Cold Steel. (There are several other books about the Bolos which I fully intend to read but for whatever reason Baen Books decided to drop the numbering convention.) This is what seems to be another in-between book in the series and its overall development. As I mentioned in the last book, the short stories all focused on one particular war that was fairly limited in scope, as well as the Bolos efforts in defending humanity from this new threat. Cold Steel once again focuses on just one planet, in this case Thule, and has only two stories. The second one, “Though Hell Should Bar the Way”, by Linda Evans, is long enough to be its own novel and leaves me rather optimistic about the later books.
Cold Steel, as I mentioned, focuses on the world of Thule, a planet with an extremely harsh winter, intense volcanic activity, and innumerable asteroids and meteors making interstellar travel a massive headache to say the least. It would have been entirely ignored by humanity except for an incredibly rich supply of saganium, a material component of the new duralloy which makes up Bolo warhulls. This has made Thule a priority mining operation of immense strategic significance and human colonies are quickly established. However, the preliminary survey did not reveal the existence of a native intelligent species, the Tersae, who become rather violent when humans show up on their planet.
Overall the writing is enjoyable pulp Bolo action. If you've enjoyed the series so far you'll enjoy this, no doubt about it. However, among all the awesome pulp action which the Bolo series is fueled by, there are some really uncomfortable questions that get raised. First off, there is of course the imperialism parallel where a more technologically advanced culture arrives at a “barren” location to obtain natural resources, only to find themselves in conflict with locals who are rather unhappy with all these strange people on their land. This is side-stepped when it turns out the Tersae were created by and are receiving orders from “Ones Above”, so the conflict is a proxy war between two powers and the Tersae are just tools. Which actually makes it much worse come to think of it.
Another important question that gets raised is are the humans really any better? The Tersae are a genetic experiment that are thrown into a war by their creators, expected to die on their behalf. Are the humans really all that better with their Bolos? An intelligent, self-aware, self-directing species that exists merely to fight and die or become obsolete and replaced? I feel like Evans was aware she kind of painted herself into a corner with that question and gets out with an argument that kind of boils down to:“Humans good, aliens bad.” I feel we could really only ask the Bolos their opinion, but that may not be legitimate either since Bolos are fundamentally hardwired to protect their human creators. It just results in an uncomfortable question with no real answer. And it's fine if there was no real answer, plenty of science fiction has gone that way, Twilight Zone included, but we're given a quick and easy answer so we can feel better and get back to the pulp action.
At the end of the day, the Bolo series has largely had, “Whee! Giant robot tanks!” as its premise. And as pulp-action, giant robot tank space battles fluff it works. And when the books start to introduce more complicated ideas into the giant robot tank space battles it works as well. And I think that's a credit to the writers, but in this particular instance it just didn't work out. The questions they raised don't have easy answers and it feels disingenuous to both the series and the reader to just say, “Humans aren't monsters” and go about business as usual. At least, that's how I feel about it.
I choose to see this as a developmental period in the Bolo series, moving from the shorter stories toward longer narratives that also try to incorporate more complex ideas beyond pulp action awesome. Don't get me wrong, I love my pulp, but when it can be sophisticated as well? Wins all around. Hopefully the other books, in the hands of such capable authors as David Weber, will build upon the Bolo's noble legacy.
P.S. I've been trying to find more books by Linda Evans as well. I really like her work with the Bolos and I want to read more, but I haven't had much luck finding any. If anybody knows any good books by her please post them in the comments! Thank you!