In this exciting new anthology from Baen, we are examining the non biological soldiers of the future. This isn't as crazy as one might imagine. Older than we think, the first UAV was the "Aerial Target" flown in 1917, while a robot for antitank purposes was deployed by the Wehrmacht in 1942. Drones and robots are becoming more common on the battlefield every year. From little bomb disposal bots, to enormous fixed winged unmanned aerial vehicles. What might the future of autonomous warfare hold? These authors intend to stretch our imaginations and find out! Real thanks to Sean Korsgaard for tipping me off on the release date so I could snag it!
It's a collection of thirteen stories that I'm looking at, so here's a brief primer on each and my own thoughts. There's some gems in here and ones which expanded my own thinking about the way we might see robots in future wars. Here are the Robosoldiers, thank you for your servos!
Higher Ground (M. T. Reiten): In the sequel to Afghan War I the US is back, but this time with mobile autonomous Guardian soldiers. Clever, but not especially bright in some cases. It's a really well contained story that sets up a tactical problem, the limits of a system, and how even mundane robots could be used to deadly effect in the future.
Today I Go Home (Martin L. Shoemaker): A mechanical warrior has been found deep in the jungles of Central America along the border of Belize and Guatemala. An expat technician is called home so he can help end the threat of a now rampaging machine which kills anyone who comes near. Can he overcome old grudges and find a way to save his country from chaos?
I enjoyed this one because it was a fairly close knit story of a technician and not a soldier. Some clever use of machine learning and programs as well, which added to an overall mystery element in a way which built some very well plotted tension.
All Is One (Doug Beason): A clever take on the future of Space Force and the potential for space based satellite surveillance. It's a bit of an "AI doesn't understand humans and that's dangerous" story which is always good to counter the 'uber AI' narrative it's proponents tell. It has a clever conclusion, but might have been on the weaker side, if only because it was constrained by the short story aspect which didn't give it enough room to make the story really eerie. I loved the subtext around the dangers of constant surveillance however, and it's something too few people think about.
Edge Case (Richard Fox): With the advent of telemetry and better sensors, a bomb-disposable bot is now the best way to save lives when an explosive is involved. This was a very clever story with an interesting twist on a bomb disposal plot with an extremely clever ending that had me yelping with surprise! Genuinely good writing and an impressive grasp of the mystery genre as well. Cannot praise this one highly enough for how it really used tropes well and did an amazing job challenging my own ideas on how one could write a story like this!
Manchurian (Sean Patrick Hazlett): A very fun story about special forces operators, a resurgent and depraved series of human experiments, and a title with a play on words which left me rather shocked by it's ending. A special forces soldier uses the terrifying weapons at his disposal to fight off a Chinese encroachment, only to realize that the enemy has weapons far deadlier than he can imagine. Not my favorite story in the anthology, if only because I'm poorly disposed towards nanite swarms in fiction, but it was a good story to subvert my expectations!
Resilience (Monalisa Foster): Honestly, this was one of the cleverest and most beautiful stories in the whole anthology. PTSD is a very poorly represented aspect of a soldier's life in fiction, often only portrayed in the negative and destructive sense, but one which is real and hard hitting. Sergeant Karlie Engel has survived a traumatic event and is running through a course of therapy with a neural implant which is supposed to help calm her racing thoughts and dampen her triggers, but what happens when that course of therapy isn't working?
Really emotional and quite exciting in how it manages to tie things up at the end.
The Rules of the Game (Phillip E. Pournelle): The two global superpowers are once again facing off over Taiwan, and the US and China are both using advanced AI and computer learning models to predict, preempt, and overcome their opponents strategies. On one side, an advanced battle computer trying to predict and map all American moves, on the other a series of plans and machines designed to frustrate those predictions. It's a really good examination of the issues within AI learning and the weaknesses of depending on such a system can have. Interesting run at overcoming the potential advantages another side might have in using this system, while also making a poignant point about the problems in rigid ideology.
My Dog Skipper 2.0 (Weston Ochse): Can you really bring back your best friend? When a military experiment between a man and his dog, unknowingly, goes wrong, a Frankenstein's monster style situation erupts. It was an interesting take on the 'man and his dog' story, but was almost one better relegated to a horror anthology than a military anthology!
Uncovered Data (David Drake): A short, but slightly confusing interrogation story. I admit I couldn't quite piece this one together other than there was an interrogator, he was interrogating someone, and there was a kind of psychic uplink? Otherwise, I don't really know how robots were involved in this one.
The Handyman (T. C. McCarthy): Jed has signed a twenty year contract as a maintenance man on a Lunar base for the United States Marine Corps, mostly automated. Easy money he thinks, until the Russians attack. Then it's up and running to make sure his goose isn't cooked by Russian combat units, and that he has enough Jim Bean to see him through this hard run across the Lunar surface. An excellent read with lots of action in a pulse pounding story. Loved how this one just ran with 'hillbilly berates robot soldier' and made it laugh out loud fun.
The Pinocchio Gambit (Brad R. Torgersen): In a secret war over robotic systems, a system man must become an interrogator must try and feel out whether a Chinese defector is an ally or an enemy. Extremely well written look at shifting allegiances, spy games, and the potential for spy games to get very lethal very fast.
Nightingale (Stephen Lawson): This was a real winner. When an engineer is kidnapped by a nefarious agent for personal gain, a rogue rescue team has to used its many robotic assets to get him out. I loved this one because it was a James Bond style story tied up with really cool robots that fight little battles of their own. There was a very cleverly integrated human element too, with a little love triangle that made you, somewhat, doubt the good intentions of everyone involved. Fast paced action all the way through and it wired years of backstory and forefront action into a very small package.
Operation Meltwater (Philip Kramer): What happens when an experimental probe for NASA's exploration of Enceladus gets checked out by some snoopy Russians? An action packed comedy of errors and discovery where a scientist finds himself in way over his head.
This was one of my favorite stories in the anthology because it took a regular scientist and put him in a few amusing 'fish out of water' situations. From his confronting of a few irregular personnel assigned to the project, to his own ingenious grasp of his own project to make a third option, it was a rather heartwarming, and exciting, conclusion to the anthology. I definitely enjoyed his hard bitten pessimism coupled with a lot of weird stuff happening around him.
Like any anthology, it won't work for everyone, and some stories are hit or miss depending on your preferences. I thoroughly enjoyed the work though and a lot of good authors have some fantastic short work on display here. Genuinely loved the combination of heart, artificial soul, technological know how and gunplay which covered this anthology. Great read for anyone who loves science fiction and robots!