Trigger warning; this post contains an explicit discussion of sadomasochism and sexual exploitation.
Spoiler alert; I’m going to discuss the plot in detail.
Whining alert; I made an offhanded comment about this story needing its own post. Scores of you – okay, well, two – followed up and asked for one. I had to read the story twice and go back into the story and check quotes. That was painful. The things I do for you guys!
“Big Boys Don’t Cry” by Tom Kratman could raise serious, thoughtful questions about the costs of war and the systematic creation of “innocent killers” who die to protect the treasure or political power of others. Unfortunately, those questions suffocate under the weight of weird psycho-sexual quirks and a number of story problems that should have been caught and corrected after the first draft.
Here’s a brief summary of the plot. A few hundred years in the future, humanity is fighting numerous wars on numerous planets. Some are wars of imperialism as humans invade worlds; some are civil wars between human colonists. The military has created anti-grav tanks operated by an onboard AI, a “crystalline brain” (like Data’s brain on Star Trek, Next Generation) called a Ratha. Rathas are self-aware. They assign themselves human gender-roles and assume human European-American nicknames. (There is no story-reason for them to do either of those things.) One tank, Magnolia, identifies as female. After an ambush, Magnolia is seriously damaged and hauled back for scrap. The wounds she sustained make some hidden programming in her crystalline brain available to her. She discovers the truth of her early programming and the evil humans who programmed her. Learning this, she decides to act.
Rather than tell the story that might be suggested by self-aware tanks, rather than explore the serious conflicts and dilemmas that are raised by our expanding military technology, Kratman goes for shock value at the end of the story, equating the pleasure that Magnolia gets from killing with an orgasm. Later, realizing how her pain and pleasure centers have been manipulated in her conditioning, Magnolia describes her experience as a “rape.” I am not exaggerating or drawing an inference from the text.
“With our first five shots, three of the enemy vehicles are destroyed. The pleasure is overpowering, indescribable. I search my data banks for a word for what I am feeling. It is ‘orgasm’” (That’s Magnolia, remembering a VR training experience.)
“I know how it feels to be raped.” (That’s her too.)
Setting aside the whole sexual weirdness of tank sadomasochism and the endless questions it inspires, let’s just look at the story for a moment. Why do you give your tank’s artificial brain a “pleasure center?” As a strategic choice, why on earth do you give your tank “pain receptors?” The tank will know it’s damaged; why incapacitate it on the battlefield?
There are seven or eight tanks named in the story. Only one, Magnolia, is female. Why is Magnolia female? I don’t know. She’s pretty poorly written as a female, but then, she’s not a very convincing machine either. Why is there only one “female” tank? I don’t know that either.
In addition to using pain-and-sexual-pleasure conditioning on Magnolia, the humans installed other secret coding. When Magnolia’s ethical programming stops her from, oh, let’s say, firing on civilians, the military humans can override her “will” and force her to do it. When Magnolia realizes what’s been done to her, she plans her revenge. The basic plot is “Tank as Red Sonja.”
As creepy, sexually weird and strategically stupid as the “reveal” of the story is, there is plenty more wrong with BBDC. Shock value doesn’t distract from the other deficits of prose, characterization, or insufficient world-building.
Prose: The prose does not fit the story.
Kratman can write a grammatical sentence. He can craft a paragraph. He is trustworthy with dependent clauses and competent with commas. All of this is good and if he were writing an essay on WWII desert warfare, I would expect a comprehensible, if dry, read.
Story-telling requires more than this. It requires rhythmic shifts, clear point of view shifts, pacing changes and tonal changes, and, mostly, prose that enhances the related events. This story does not show us that Kratman can use language to do that.
Early in BBDC, Magnolia’s patrol is ambushed. This should be tense, exciting, suspenseful. It isn’t. Things plod along, paragraph after paragraph, ka-bump, ka-bump, ka-bump, in the tone of… well, in the tone of an essay on WWII desert warfare. Nothing reads as if it’s happening to Magnolia right now. Kratman chooses distancing, qualifying words, and overuses modifiers:
“…in the kill zone of what was, in Ratha terms, a near ambush.”
“…From around the Ratha some twenty-seven pairs of Slugs began to rise…”
Magnolia, beleaguered and outnumbered, reacts the way any AI or woman under attack would, with an internal monologue that goes like this:
“This is preposterous! There’s no benefit to the Slugs in destroying me that’s remotely commensurate with the price they’ve already paid, let alone what they’re going to have to pay! No wonder we haven’t talked; we don’t share even rudimentary mathematics!”
All the exclamation points in the world cannot help the rhythm of those sentences.
Characters: They are shallow.
To be fair, it’s difficult to write a deep-learning machine character convincingly, because we don’t even have a real starting point yet. That said, this story does not demonstrate that Kratman can write human characters either. No one is terribly complex or believable. The humans are callous, evil and corrupt. Why? Well, because they are, that’s why. The tanks are innocent killers, obedient and loyal. The one glimmer of real characterization with Magnolia (who, like the Cylons, has an interest in spirituality,) fades away with no resolution.
The most interesting tank character, THN, who has chosen not to assume a human gender-role or a nickname, disappears out of the story after one paragraph. THN is closest thing to a “smart tank” in the novella’s entire 58 pages. It acknowledges that it is a machine. I would have enjoyed seeing Magnolia interact with it. We are told that THN never fit in with the other tanks; I guess it wasn’t allowed to eat lunch at the “cool tank” table in high school. With THN, Kratman introduces a potentially interesting character and then abandons it.
Then there are the human characters. Here we see one interacting with a Ratha tank named Samuel, who is questioning an order that is unsound.
“… surrounded by a bevy of admiring females from the regimental administrative staff, the commander said, ‘Pooh, pooh, Sam! Are you a Ratha or a wheelbarrow? The order stands.’”
(Until the next paragraph, where our snooty commander pours champagne for the redheaded person standing next to him, I wasn’t sure that “females” in this case meant “human women.”)
This champagne-swilling, pooh-poohing commander is only one of a series of stereotypical human characters. My personal favorite is the governor of an obscure planet.
“Magda Dunkelmeier, the new governor, was a modern woman, certainly modern in her attitudes. She was certain – absolutely convinced – that only some sort of men’s conspiracy had removed her from the center of moving and shaking. Either a conspiracy, or perhaps the machinations of a little bimbo of the CD-Seven who had not only caught the eye of the Secretary, but coveted Dunkelmeier’s previous job.”
Yep, 24th-century Magda is a real “modern woman,” all right, or would be, if she had been a character in Mad Men. And I think “center of moving and shaking” does not mean that she lives on an earthquake prone planet, I think it is meant to refer to a center of political power.
World-Building: It is inadequate to non-existent.
We know we’re about two hundred years in the future because we are given dates, and we’re out among the stars. Kratman also includes some “found documents,” some purporting to be academic-styled papers, written by Thaddeus Nnaji-Olokomo, a 30th century historian looking back at the time period in which Magnolia functions. We know we’re at war and that there is a military. We know humans either developed or found the Ratha brains. Beyond the basic conflicts between the “grunts” (the Ratha tanks and their drones) and the “brass,” we know nothing about the overarching government or governments. We know there was once a United Planets Organization, and that it was located on our earth, but we don’t know what authority it had.
Nnaji-Olokomo is writing in 2936. Strangely, he uses idioms like “a baker’s dozen,” and compares “a snail to a thoroughbred” in discussing speed; yet he is writing 9 centuries from now, born and raised, presumably, on a planet that doesn’t have snails or horses. I hope, for his sake, that it has bakers. In discussing an attack on the United Planets Organization (an attack of which he apparently approves), Nnaji-Olokomo tells us:
“…It probably didn’t hurt matters when, one Friday afternoon, following the fall of Bernharnais and the presumed deaths of almost half a billion people, a Washyorkston mob stormed the offices of the United Planets Organization, trampled the security guards into bloody jam and dragged to the lampposts some one hundred and twenty-seven members of the Assembly of Man. There would have been more had most of the members not signed out earlier that morning on a long paid weekend. Among the lynched were several hundred time-serving bureaucrats, sixty or seventy of whom were, at least in theory, members of the military.”
We know this attack took place on earth, presumably in an urban area that is a mix of Washington, New York and Boston. This entire passage doesn’t serve much purpose, except perhaps to exercise some wish-fulfillment on the part of the writer (“Tee-hee! I murdered the United Nations; I’m so naughty!”). Writing several hundred years after the fact, this historian doesn’t see the need to explain phrases like “security guards,” “lampposts,” and “lynched,” to his audience.
“Washyorkston” is a clue to a savvy SF reader that the writer doesn’t care to invest in building a plausible world. That’s a placeholder name; the kind of thing you find in first-draft stories or work by beginning writers. It means you didn’t want to bother with imagining an actual mega-city on the USA’s eastern seaboard, but you wanted the paragraph to look “futuristic.”
It’s too long.
I haven’t done an exact word count, but this thing must run about 14,000 words. That is at least 4,000 words too long. A look on the Hugo Awards page tells us that a shorter version of this appeared earlier and this version, which is longer, was published in 2014. If the longer version had provided context it could have been fine. The words here now are like empty calories, and gives a reader too much time to ask too many questions, questions the writer doesn’t answer.
The violation of the self-hood of the Rathas is a serious question, and the heart of a serious story, a story that is not told here. Whatever purpose the tank sadomasochism serves, it isn’t necessary. When the Rathas discover that their autonomy, their agency, can be overridden at a whim, that should be enough to create the disillusionment with their corrupt human creators. Theoretically then, the Rathas would have to do something. That would be an interesting story. Of course, many of my SF friends will say that it’s already been done; that was the Battlestar Galactica reboot.
BBDC desperately needed a decent editor and a disciplined writer who could put aside self-indulgence in service to his story. As it is, this demonstrates amateur-hour mistakes. It’s 58 pages that just were not ready for prime time.