|Submitted by Pete |
(Mar 12, 2006)
The Road To Damascus – John Ringo and Linda Evans - 2004
Phew! If you like your SF hard, bloody and jingoistic, this is for you. The cover of this book declares ‘Keith Laumer’s Bolos are Back….’
If you know what they are, then you will probably want to read this book. Likewise if you know John Ringo, you will know what to expect.
For those who do not know what a Bolo is, this book is about SOL-0045, a Mk XX Bolo, a continental siege engine with self aware Artificial Intelligence, powered by a nuclear reactor or two and armed with just about any weapon you can imagine from anti personnel repeaters to a Hellbore that is capable of taking out an orbiting space battle-cruiser from the ground.
Keith Laumer wrote a whole series of loosely linked stories about the Bolos over a couple of decades or so.
Over the years ideas like the Bolo become so well known they eventually become an accepted part of SF, like hyperspace drives, antimatter, robots and androids. Different authors thought all of these up in the past as a device for a particular story but now are staples of the genre, so it is no surprise to find people writing stories based around these impressive war machines. Because they are intelligent and self-aware they are complex enough to provide unlimited scope for authors writing SF.
In The Road to Damascus, SOL-0045, in common with all Bolos, is programmed to have almost fanatical loyalty to its regiment and its commander, who has to be a rather special highly trained human officer. It can fight with the commander on board, or by remote communication with its commander, or even autonomously using its own judgement and tactical algorithms. When activated the Bolos have a range of awareness levels from a low awareness level of standby mode to full battle alert. In all modes it has a degree of autonomy, allowing it to make decisions much faster than any human. In full battle alert mode Bolos are formidable, having many hi tech means of obtaining intelligence and with access to huge databases of tactical situations they can assess and respond to many different attack and defence situations with a high certainty of success. A single bolo like SOL-0045 is practically all that is needed to defend a planet against most known enemies found in Keith Laumer’s and John Ringo's background universe and SOL-0045 does just this, fighting off an attack wave almost single handed that had landed alien troops equipped with mechanized armour with almost the same capability as the Bolo.
Once the battle is over and the marauding aliens are sent packing, hostilities cease for the time being. The war is not over, but in that area of space there is no immediate threat, so SOL-0045, who is now obsolescent, and so is not worth moving to the front line, is left on loan to the local government and semi retired as ‘surplus on loan’ just in case the aliens return.
Once peace descends its troubles really begin. The local government goes bad and starts a repressive campaign against a faction of its own people, and because the Bolo's commander refuses to use his machine against the people, the leaders of this government wage an underhanded campaign against him and his family. The Bolo becomes more and more under control of the elected government of the planet, as first its commander is put out of action by the secret police and then a civil war breaks out. Eventually SOL-0045 finds its loyalties divided and has to make a moral decision about its actions.
The book starts with the Bolo in this moral dilemma trying to decide how it should best follow orders when faced with a small boy armed only with a toy popgun blocking its way. It knows the boy poses no real threat to it tactically because it recognises the child is not a real soldier and one of its prime directives is not to kill non combatants whenever possible.
The rest of the book is how this awesome machine arrives at such a difficult position where a small child holds in check, this non-human Artificial Intelligence designed to wage total war on a planetary scale .
SOL-0045 is faced with the alternatives of either rolling over the child to complete its mission therefore killing a non-combatant, or to abort its objectives in order to protect the child. Since both alternatives are within the scope of its orders it is in a real dilemma and the machine has to decide what is right and what is wrong and where its real loyalties lie.
Getting to this point in the Bolo’s career takes you back through the Bolo and its commander’s history hinting at some of their previous campaigns together and then following how the commander meets and marries a local girl in the process fighting against the aliens. He then settles on this world only to fight another war against the increasingly corrupt government. Altogether a satisfactorily long complex and fast paced story about the various people's lives touched first by the war, then the local politics and also by this monstrous killing machine central to all their destinies, and conversely how their lives influence and affect the machine itself.
The characters suffer a great deal as their world goes down the pan as they have to fight for their way of life, the lives and minds of their own families and eventually are just fighting to stay alive. As the situation deteriorates, they find themselves sometimes working with the Bolo and sometimes against it. A terrific read, all I have come to expect from John Ringo but complemented by Linda Evans giving the book’s human relationships extra depth, and getting you totally involved in their lives, fears and hopes.