Keith Laumer’s stories of autonomous, artificially intelligent war machines are still remembered fondly today.
Keith Laumer (1925-1993) holds an unusual place in the history of Science Fiction. During his life he never received the laurels that he deserved, never winning either the Hugo or Nebula. Despite this his work was popular with readers. A diplomat, he was uniquely positioned to write the Retief series with a verisimilitude that most of us could never hope to find. His military SF is also well-informed, having served in the Air Force. In the 21st century his Bolo series has found new fans as the tales of the robotic tanks have been reprinted by Baen Books and expanded upon by authors like William Keith and Eric Flint. What I wanted to do here does not include these pastiches, but looks at the original Bolo tales and in the order they were written, with the hope of gleaming some idea of the evolution the idea has taken. All Laumer’s original work appeared in The Compleat Bolo (1990). This is a nice collection because it is Laumer’s alone. Taken, along with the novel A Plague of Demons (1964) it forms the core of the Bolo canon.
“Combat Unit” (F&SF, November 1960) was the first Bolo tale, and in it we can see Laumer has begun at the end, creating much of what is to come later, meaning the Dinochrome Brigade, self-aware super-tanks, their history, methods and abilities. The story begins when a damaged tank awakens, works it way back to full consciousness. Laumer gives this process as a series of choppy improvements that allows the reader to experience the awakening as the Mark XXXIII series tank does. This arty technique, as much as the intelligence of the tank that sits waiting for rescue, while it listens to classical music, studies stars and contemplates the meaning of life and death, explains why this story appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction. It’s not an action story so much as the tale of a survivor and the success of his positive mind-set.
“Courier” (aka “The Frozen Planet”) (IF, September 1961) ties the Bolo series to Laumer’s most famous creation, Retief, the galactic agent. The Bolo has only a brief cameo when Retief makes his way to the frozen planet of Jorgenson’s World. He must warn the mind-reading Scandinavian descendants of an incoming invasion by the Soetti. Retief and his companion Chip are threatened by a “… a Bolo Resartus, Model M. Built mebbe two hundred years ago in Concordiat times” which they disable by hacking its controls. Bolo production ended at the time of “Combat Unit”, with the Mark XXXIII being the last of the super-tanks. Ultimately, the Soetti are turned aside and the Bolo’s appearance is noteworthy but not of any real importance.
Night of the Trolls
“Night of the Trolls” (Worlds of Tomorrow, October 1963) is Laumer’s major opus of Bolos, with the timeline returning closer to the beginning. Laumer never really ever shows us the early days of the Bolos, but prefers the days after their glory. After a holocaust, Jackson, a scientist and Bolo technician, wakes up from hyb-sleep to find his world replaced by death and barbarism. He quickly learns that a “Baron” has taken charge, with armed soldiers combing the ruins for wealth and survivors to enslave or kill. This man turns out to be Jackson’s old colleague Mallon, now eighty years older. Two Bolos are in the mix, with each guarding a different location, a Mark I protects the underground complex where Jackson wakes and the Mark III protects a spaceship, Prometheus, filled with sleeping voyagers. Playing a dangerous game with the power-hungry Mallon, Jackson disarms the Mark III Bolo but lays a trap of his own. Jackson escapes to the Mark I and lures Mallon and the Mark III into an empty missile silo. Despite the Mark I being older, more inferior tech, and having no missile to fire, Jackson wins out. A tank trap is a tank trap, even in the near future. Both the Mark I and III are not self-aware but able to be programmed to do certain tasks such as perimeter duty.
Laumer shows his best talents in this story, making the action exciting but also plucking at our heart strings with the character of the old man who saves Jackson twice, and firing our sense of revenge with the insidious Mallon. By setting one model of Bolo against another we learn much about their respective abilities and weaknesses. Laumer would expand this story (padded really) into the novel The Stars Must Wait (1990) but changes the ending to a less satisfying conclusion.
There is so much more to this topic and G. W Thomas’ article in the second issue of Dark Worlds Quarterly goes much further in depth. You can read the entire article and more in the latest issue of DARK WORLDS QUARTERLY. Download issue # 2 for FREE right here, or click on the download button below!