Blogging the Hugos: Big Boys Don’t Cry

Big Boys Don’t Cry
Tom Kratman
Category: Best Novella

big_boysWith all of the Best Novel nominees behind us, it’s time to enter the short fiction categories. These come almost entirely from the Sad/Rabid Puppies slates, and after The Dark Between the Stars my expectations for slate nominees were so low they were located somewhere in the Earth’s mantle. I was therefore relieved to find that Big Boys Don’t Cry contains competent prose and an interesting narrative structure, with interwoven forward/backward in time threads in a manner similar to Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons.

Like Use of Weapons, this is a story about how a society turns a sentient being into a weapon for its own use. In this case, the central character is an AI named Magnolia installed in a futuristic tank, who first is shown to be a skilled and valorous soldier, then gradually revealed to have been complicit or participatory in various war crimes. At the end comes the reveal of the methods used to mold Magnolia into a personality that would delight in killing and follow orders unquestioningly (spoiler alert: they’re not pretty).

Unfortunately, while Use of Weapons is a masterpiece, this book was just kind of a slog. The story is told through a string of battle scenes with little-to-no context of the wars they’re a part of, and almost no characterization outside of Magnolia. The author is much more interested in describing guns, gun sizes, gun arrangements, guns firing, explosives, and stuff blowing up than he is in developing any of the other characters, and since we don’t know anything about the participants, the battle scenes quickly lose their excitement. As I started each new chapter I began to yearn more and more for something another than another battle on another generic planet against another faceless enemy modeled after some animal or another. I was repeatedly disappointed.

When we do get a break from the gunfire, the author’s ugly politics sometimes bubble to the surface. One of the worst war criminals in the story is a cartoon liberal feminist; she is described by the book as a modern woman and you can practically hear the scorn dripping off those two words. In another chapter, an angry mob storms a legislature during wartime and lynches some of its insufficiently militaristic members. I had the uncomfortable feeling here that I was reading one of the author’s political fantasies. Even though the book doesn’t condone all the acts of killing that are depicted, it definitely gives off a bloodthirsty vibe.

There was one odd note that stuck with me in an apparently unimportant passage:

The last remaining vehicle, however, named THN but, because of 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), was not in the kill zone. Ratha doctrine called for it to extricate itself from the ambush. This it proceeded to do, diverting its propulsion to return from whence it had come, firing like a maniac to its front, and incidentally, leaving Magnolia quite alone, with her back literally to the wall.

So many questions about that parenthetical! Such as why a tank needs to decide whether it is male or female, and why it’s “peculiar” if it can’t figure out what kind of imaginary genitalia it has. Why anyone would think that giving a name to a genderless AI was some kind of impossible task beyond the reach of human imagination. Whether Tom Kratman thinks that deciding one’s own gender is something humans can do (I have a guess about this one).

THN, the tank who rejected society’s absurdly rigid concept of gender, is my favorite character in the novel. The other tanks are given nicknames based on the three-letter code (Magnolia’s is MLN) and THN reminds me of T-Rex’s favorite gender-neutral pronoun, “thon”. I’d like to think that THN decided to call itself Thon after finding the word in an old database. Perhaps Thon even used the pronoun “thon” to refer to thonself. Unfortunately, Thon only appears in the passage above, so this is all we’ll know of thon. I’ll just have to imagine thon going on to start a wave of societal change, ushering in a new gender-blind society in the style of Ancillary Justice. That would certainly be a more interesting story than what we got here.