Saturday, May 30, 2015

Tin Men by Christopher Golden


Title: Tin Men
Author: Christopher Golden
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Rating: WORTHY!

Not to be confused with the movie of the same name or with a score of novels of the same name, this story with a rather unoriginal and un-inventive title is about a soldier named Danny Kelso who is at the end of his tether with the relationship he's in with Nora, but he can't think about that right now because he has to get to work. Work in Danny's case is driving a robot soldier.

Set in the near future, Danny lives in Germany, but is fighting in Syria. When an EMP hits his robot, he finds himself trapped inside it. How this works - how it was even allowed to work is never explained, and that, in a tin shell, is the biggest problem with this novel. It requires far too much faith and trust without giving a thing in return. It requires your disbelief to be suspended so high and for so long that it chokes the life out of it.

The novel started out okay, but it seems a little odd that Danny was concerned about being late. He clocks in on time, and then has breakfast - something the soldiers are allowed to do - but his sergeant is immediately on his case for being late? This made no sense to me. Other than that, the story moved speedily towards the action.

This underlying idea borrows heavily from the movie Avatar and from the movie The Matrix, and from the movie Surrogates, and from the movie Robocop, but it makes none of the contextual sense that those movies make. These soldiers are not 'dressed up as robots' to look like the local natives, who are human. They're not in their cocoons so some machine race can suck up their emitted energy. They're not so attired out of vanity or playfulness or because of a money-grubbing corporation.

Instead they're merely remote soldiers, enhanced by the strength, speed and power of robotics, and the only reason offered for this is to save soldiers' lives, yet even that is a flawed premise as we shall see. These soldiers are not remotely piloting the robots - so at least that flaw is bypassed, but their consciousness is downloaded into the robot. This makes zero sense, casebook it means that their real bodies, in Germany, are now essentially vegetables, and if anything goes wrong, a soldiers' consciousness is trapped inside the robot and when it dies, they die. How is this an improvement over what they had?!

Why anyone would design a system like this is a complete mystery, but this trope is the same one we saw in The Matrix and many other such stories and it's fatally flawed because no rationale whatsoever is given for why your mind is gone from your body or even how it's gone. You know, even if you delete something from your computer hard drive, it's actually still there. You have to physically overwrite that section of the drive with something else before it's erased. So why would copying your mind to a robot erase your mind?

When you have photos in your cloud and you send one to a friend or family member, the original photo isn't erased. It remains in the cloud, What you send is a copy and it doesn't matter if you send one or you send one to every one of the seven billion people on Earth, you still have that original. So where is the precedent for voiding the mind of a human being? There is none. It makes no sense.

Quite the contrary, it would make far more sense to copy the mind and have the same person inhabiting a whole platoon of these robots, working in perfect coordination and for a fraction of the cost of hiring and training a whole bunch of soldiers. Naturally you want a variety of soldiers so people think out of the box, but you don't need the million person army the US currently has (counting the National guard and the reserve). You just need a core of excellent soldiers and a host of mechanics and fabricators. The problem then, though, is that without this old trope, an author is screwed for the drama, so this is why we're so frequently asked to just leap right over this huge pothole and hope we land in irises and daffodils, and not the muddy depths of another pothole.

When I checked some of the reviews for this novel I noticed that one reviewer had downgraded it purely for the bad language on the first page, but there really wasn't any bad language on the first page! There was one four-letter word, and not even the worst four-letter word, and that was it. The deal here, though, is that this is a novel about the military in combat. You don't get military in combat with no bad language! If you get a story like that, with soldiers saying things like "Rats!" and "Curses" then you know this story is not at all realistic! Although it would be hilarious!

If I might digress for a minute and talk about language, a crucial part of writing, I have to say that this whole thing about bad language is amusing to me because it's patently ridiculous from the ground up. Think about it. As a society, we English speakers have chosen to designate some words as "Very Naughty Indeed" (VNI). Speakers of other languages have made similar rules and regulations, but their rules are nonsensical to us because their designated words, which are appalling in their own language, are meaningless to us.

This hasn't stopped us, however! We have all of us agreed that they're "Very Naughty Indeed", and none of us really ought to be saying any of these VNI words. They're not just cuss words either. We've agreed to include some racist words and even words that insult relatives, such as "Yo' mama". We mustn't say these words, we've agreed, and we must pretend to be shocked when people use them. In fact, we've become so adept at this pretense that many people don't even need to pretend - they're genuinely shocked at hearing them.

Curiously, most of these words are related to sex organs or sexual functions, and to be good and upright citizens we mustn't ever say them and we must appear appalled when we hear them. We all agreed on this! How crazy is that? How ridiculous are we that we make up these conventions? How crazy is it that some words, even amongst the shocking ones, are more shocking than others, and some people will take offense at one and not at another?"

Oh I'm going to be hurt by that racist word, because I have a prior agreement with you, the person who is abusing me, that if you use a little six letter word to try and hurt me, I promise to you in return that I will be genuinely hurt. This is the pact made between a racist and their intended victim: that the one will say the word and the other agrees to be wounded by it!

The truly weird thing here is that these apparent antagonists are really on the same team. They're working together in this. They're playing from the same play-book. These enemies are partners! How utterly absurd is that? The only rational response to the use of such words isn't hatred or outrage or cowardice. It's to laugh - a good belly laugh at this patently ridiculous convention to which we all subscribe, whereby I agree completely to let you hurt me by using a VNI word.

Parts of this novel bothered me. The idea that only the US can save the rest of the world and that when global warming somehow turned the world into an apocalyptic wasteland, the US was the only nation willing and able to step up - the US which is the one doing a lion's share of the polluting, guzzling a lion's share of the resources, burning oil like it will never run out.

Another thing was the genderism. Even while writing a story presenting women as equals including, commendably, a handicapped woman, we still got this: "Early twenties, black, lovely in the awkward never-going-to-realize-I'm beautiful sort of way that some women had." Change 'beautiful' to 'handsome' and 'women' to 'men' and read it again. Does it sound weird? It shouldn't, but it probably does, because you never see writers write like that about men. Even female authors write like that about women though. I was rather expecting some jingo-ism, military bravado, and genderism in a story like this, I'm sorry to say, but even so it's still off-putting to read, in 2015, that a woman really isn't of any value unless she's beautiful. Otherwise why mention it? And what difference does it make that she's black?

When Kelso 'downloads' into his bot, he discovers that one of the others from the previous shift has painted a target on his chest. It seems that discipline is seriously lacking here. The bots pair off and start patrolling Damascus. Why the US is there at all is a mystery given the trouble Syria has had and the US stayed clear - at least in terms of ground deployment, but here we are. Nor do I get what resource is in Syria that needs protecting. People, yes, but the US has never been as big on protecting lives as it has on protecting non-human resources. What happened to the Syrian government such as it was? What happened to the Syrian army that the US now has free reign in this nation? None of this is explained.

It's actually when the pilots got into the bots that we started seeing some inconsistencies. First we're told that the bots have no identification markings (other than what jokers have painted on them), to insure that no enemy can identify the leaders. This makes sound military sense. Then they have Kate, one of the pilots or drivers, saluting the sergeant, thereby identifying him as the leader. This makes no sense. No one in their right mind salutes in deployment conditions for precisely that reason - so the enemy doesn't know who is in charge and are not presented an easy and perhaps critical target. But the readily identifiable markings on each robot clearly define who is who.

There's very little information given about how the download works. In a scene pretty much taken directly from the remake of Robocop, when the drivers 'wake up' inside the bots, they're evidently standing in the street where anyone who knew the shift change could have simply destroyed them before they got their new pilots! Not smart. Robots patroling a Middle East nation is how the movie began.

The robots evidently blink, too. I have no idea why they would make them blink. Also, their eyes light up! Why do they always do this? We no longer believe as the ancient Greeks (or someone) did that your eyes emit rays which allow you to see, yet they always do this with robots! These bots can also arch their eyebrows and narrow their eyes. Seriously? Why? They gave the robots eyebrows? This made no sense at all. It made as little sense as the US having this technology when it's perfectly clear at this point that the leaders in robot technology are the Japanese. What was it which made the US magically leap ahead in only a decade or so? How come no other nation has anything like this?

There's another problem, too. The bots are obviously electronic. We get no information about what protection they have from electrical overloads, yet every one of them is fully functioning after a pulse strong enough to take out satellites! Despite this, each one of them has a fatal weakness - a weak spot between two joins that no one - unaccountably - seems to be able to fix. None of this makes any sense! What, they don't have any spare patches of depleted uranium to weld over the weak spot? They can't slip a Kevlar vest over them to hide it and protect it?

We meet Alexa Day who is the daughter of the US ambassador to Syria. Her father has invited her to join him in Syria. This took me right of the realm of credibility - that is unless her father doesn't care about her and actually wants to get her killed. This is a war zone in a country where people quite literally hate the US - even more so now, we're told, yet dad invites his teen daughter to visit?

The thing which bugged me most about this story however was that these soldiers do not in any way act like soldiers. They take forever to respond to what's obviously a potential threat. When they do, they stand around in the open all in a bunch, none of them taking up defensive positions. When they're attacked by some guy they can see with a rocket launcher, not a one of them fires back. This allows the rocket man to destroy one of the bots. This is sheer incompetence!

When the EMP hits, instead of taking the fight to their enemy, they stand around gabbing about EMP pulses and whether the satellite uplink is out instead of taking out the guy with the rocket launcher. Only belatedly do they think they ought to be engaging the enemy. This is not how a soldier behaves. I don't care if they feel secure inside the bots.

It was completely unrealistic, and their support was non-existent. We have drones of all kinds flying today. Ten years from now there are none? They send bots up in a helicopter to do aerial surveillance? They have no EMP protection plan? The bots survived an EMP pulse powerful enough to knock out satellites in space?! It simply wasn't realistic.

It wasn't realistic either in that it pretty much assumed that no-one had ever heard of EMP much less done any testing of susceptibility to, or reinforcing of systems against, it, and this is simply not true. Solar flares, and even lightning generate EMP, and airplanes fly through lightning and are stuck by it fairly routinely without crashing from the sky. Critical systems, especially military ones, are routinely tested against EMP pulses emitted from a device called a Marx generator, but you would need a large number of very large devices such as these operating from orbit to affect anyone, and they would have to emit a pulse of sufficient magnitude to overcome the weakening effects of inverse-square law. And how would these ever be put into space without the US or other nations noticing?

I read about a third of this before I gave up, unable to keep the growing weight of my disbelief from coming crashing down. Maybe the pulse will knock your socks off. It didn't affect mine, which are evidently Faraday safe!


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