May 25th, 2015

The Hugo Ballot, Part 15: Back to Novellas

Okay, I'm surprised.  Tom Kratman's "Big Boys Don't Cry" actually reads in places like an anti-war story.  Well, let's not get carried away here -- it's more a story about the harm that fighting wars can do, the ways in which a personality can be twisted and perverted by the aims of those in command.

Maggie is a Ratha, an intelligent fighting vehicle who has been through countless battles, and been made to forget some of her more disturbing actions.  She has been mortally wounded and is being taken apart for scrap -- but the more the workers drill down, the more she starts remembering things that now seem to her to be problematic.

What this means is that, through Maggie's memory, we see a lot of battles, and that means a lot of weaponry.  A lot of weaponry, each with its own exhaustive description: "Then there was the question of tracked versus the recently developed antigravity technology… The five options were: tracked, antigravity, both but with an emphasis on tracked and an anti-gravity assist to reduce ground pressure" -- well, there are two more options, but you get the idea.  "Meanwhile, the Ratha's secondary armament, a 75mm KE cannon, electrically driven and coaxially mounted, plus two similarly mounted 15mm Gauss Guns…"  I have to be honest here -- I skimmed through a lot of this.  I'm not all that interested in weapons, but really, I can't think of anything that I'd read huge lists of with interest -- dogs, chocolate, you name it.

I know that some people like meticulous descriptions of weapons, that it's one of the tropes of military sf.   (Also explosions.  There are lots of explosions here too.)  And I have no problem with that -- have at it.  The only thing is --

Well, about midway through, the story changes.  Maggie starts remembering the unjust wars she took part in, the innocent people she slaughtered at the command of her superiors.  And for me, this juxtaposition didn't work -- there seemed to be a huge disconnect between the two sections.  It seemed to be saying, "War is terrible -- but also, it's a lot of fun!  Look at all these cool weapons!"  The parts never joined up into a full, rounded whole.

And there's another thing.  I expected to be reading a good many right-wing talking points in the Sad Puppy stories, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of them had no conscious message at all.  I was almost to the end of the ballot, home free, and then…

It's almost as if the author can't help himself; he has to take pot-shots wherever he can, or even carve out a place for them if one doesn't exist.  So people who don't make preparation for war are "low-grade morons" and "moral lepers" -- this from a third-person viewpoint, which makes no value judgments before or after this one outburst.  One of the few women in the story, a planetary governor "unimportant in every mind but her own," is shown to be incompetent and over her head.  A man named Garcia is described only as short and "greasy looking."

The weirdest jab is for the concept of non-binary gender.  One of the Rathas "has certain peculiarities in its crystalline brain (to wit, being unable to decide whether it was male or female, hence never given a nickname, and never fully integrated into the unit)."  Why?  Was zie manufactured like that?  Why would this happen, if all the other Rathas were created to identify as male or female, and binary gender is important to the cohesiveness of the unit?  But the whole point, of course, is to show how unnatural non-binary gender is, how the other Rathas don't like zir (why not?), and refuse to let zir join in any Ratha games.

The prevailing mood of the story is mournful, elegiac, a character coming to terms with a difficult past.  Every time Kratman pauses to insert his opinion on something unrelated it jars badly with the tone, pulling the reader right out of the narrative, making them wonder what the point is.  (For example, why is the planetary governor "unimportant"?  She's certainly important enough for someone to nominate her as governor.)  And it turns the story into "message fiction," something I thought the Puppies were against.