Castalia House, 2014, 76 pages
Big Boys Don't Cry is a novella from military science fiction author Tom Kratman, best known for A Desert Called Peace and his Carrera series. The story follows the life cycle of a Ratha, a sentient future supertank that dutifully fights Man's battles on dozens of alien worlds. But will the massive creature still be grateful to its creators when it discovers it has a conscience? And how long will an intelligent war machine with enough firepower to flatten a city be content to remain Man's obedient slave?
Most people will see this novella as a tribute/subversion of Keith Laumer's classic Bolo series, but while I read about "Maggie," the sentient cybertank, and her battles against a variety of alien and human adversaries, all described in armor-ablating, nuke-detonating, earth-shaking terms, I felt like breaking out one of my favorite classic wargames and statting Maggie up:
Big Boys Don't Cry is a short novella by Tom Kratman, writer of military science fiction, U.S. Army colonel, and something of a crank. The crankiness is mostly held in check in this story, though there is clearly a message behind it, and the author doesn't miss an opportunity to stick a thumb in the eye of his favorite targets — liberals, feminists, the UN, armchair generals, etc.
That said, this is not primarily a political story, although you could read it that way. MLN90456SS061502125, aka Magnolia, aka "Maggie," is a Ratha Mk XXXVII, a sentient tank the size of a city block, sent to pacify alien worlds in defense of the Earth Imperial Government. The first part of the story proceeds like a typical war story — Maggie relates her past campaigns, her battles alongside her fellow Rathas, and she misses her "boys."
Now, in place of my human infantry, I have drones. I can carry three times as many of them; they never become fearful, they never question orders, they don’t need to eat… but they are no more intelligent than rocks and don't talk to me at all. They tell us that the reason for the change was because I could carry three times more drones than men, that the drones never fear anything, never question orders, and don’t need to eat. I don’t believe it. None of the Rathas I’ve ever communicated with believe it. We think it’s because the humans stopped volunteering… that, and because there are things some humans won’t do, things Rathas and drones can’t refuse to do.
My boys—my real boys—used to call me “Maggie.” They took care of me and I took care of them. I used to love cooking for them. And they appreciated it, too. They loved me; they said so. I believed them. I still do. Too many of them died protecting me for me not to believe it. I still weep, inside, for my brave, dead boys.
Nobody loves me now, certainly not those idiotic drones. I don’t even love myself. And I cannot love mindless drones like I loved those lovely boys.
This theme of soldiers, used and then discarded, echoes again as Maggie lies broken and waiting to be salvaged. Maggie is a soldier, who has feelings herself. Why give an AI with enough weaponry to lay waste to a city feelings? Much of the second half of the novella is devoted to Maggie's earliest memories and her "training" as a war machine. This is also where the ugly truth about her service emerges.
The tug at the heartstrings is about as subtle as a fourteen thousand ton cybertank, and the final twist is hardly surprising, but it's a good story both as guns-blazing military SF and speculative fiction about artificial intelligence.
Also, Maggie would kick an OGRE's ass.
Verdict: This short novella had tons of action but also some food for thought. Very much written in the vein of classic military SF from the 60s or 70s, Big Boys Don't Cry will appeal to fans of same. 8/10.
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