2015 Hugo Nominee: Big Boys Don’t Cry by Tom Kratman

I don’t read a lot of military scifi, but if Tom Kratman’s Big Boys Don’t Cry is any indication of what I’m missing, I may start reading more.

Nominated for the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novella (a story with a word count between 17,500 words and 40,000 words), Big Boys Don’t Cry held me from the first page. This review is part of my effort to read and evaluate the 2015 Hugo nominees prior to the final vote later this year. I’ve previously reviewed “Totaled” by Kary English, Flow by Arlan Andrews, and I’ll post other reviews as I write them.

Although there’s been a bit of controversy around the Hugo Awards this year (okay, a lot more than just a bit), I’ve decided to plow ahead and evaluate as many of the nominees as possible. Much of what has been written and said seems driven by emotion and a scarcity mentality bent on controlling and manipulating the award, where little seems to address the quality of the nominees. With some exception in the novel category (I’ve already finished Annie Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, many of the nominees appear to be new (to me), which presents an opportunity to meet some new authors, expand my regular reading, and perhaps add to the conversation. Once I’ve been able to get a better grasp of the quality of writing, perhaps I can examine it against the larger conversation (or, if you will, screaming match) happening in science fiction right now over the politics, future, and fandom around the Hugo Award.

But I digress. Where was I?

Oh, yes. Tom Kratman. Big Boys Don’t Cry. Novella. Hugo nominee A thought-provoking read.

In the far future, man has expanded throughout to the universe, overcoming the light barrier. In an imperialistic surge, we have designed autonomous tanks with artificial intelligence. Initially designed to work hand in hand with soldiers, they eventually replace them, becoming the main line of an imperial ground force. Intelligent beyond our own capacity, but tempered by very human like emotions, they are more human than we realize.

Prior to becoming a full-time author, Kratman was a career military officer, and it shows in his writing. Big Boys Don’t Cry is written by a mind steeped in the culture and history of a trained soldier and officer. That said, Kratman is no conformist, but portrays a critical awareness of the dark side of war and military culture. Underlying his story about an artificial intelligence that becoming self-aware and developing a conscience is a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris, of becoming to distanced from the violence and pain of war, and of allowing machines to do for us what we are unwilling to do ourselves.

I loved Kratman’s description of how the hardware for the artificial intelligence is grown, as well as how the AI is trained to become a warrior. He gives special attention to explaining–in mostly comprehensible technojargon–how the gigantic tanks are mobile and powered under their immense weight. He interweaves his story with requisite back story, almost in the form of a chiasmus (poetic, not genetic), coming to the end of his story just as the denouement arrives.

If I were to lodge a sole complaint, it would be that Kratman’s humans are superficially all of one breed, a selfish and greedy race, consumed with domination and control. It does, however, serve to put the protagonist tank, Maggie, in high relief as a more sympathetic character.

Big Boys Don’t Cry got me thinking, and that’s one of my main criteria for a competitive nominee for the Hugo. I hope all the best for Kratman as the voters start to tally their ballots. At the very least, I’m glad to discover a new author, and I look forward to reading more by Kratman in the future.

Originally published at www.attackofthebooks.com on April 18, 2015.