In Christopher Golden’s latest novel Tin Men, drone warfare is taken to a new extreme: robotic foot soldiers. In it, soldiers are uploaded into robots to stem soldier casualties while maintaining world order. When the power is cut, trapping them inside, they face their greatest test.
In the Remote Infantry Corps, soldiers are uploaded into robotic counterparts, where they carry out their missions across the world. Reading this book, I couldn’t help shake the image in my head of Neill Blomkamp’s movie Elysium and Chappie, where robotic soldiers are deployed for peacekeeping purposes. The book plays out like a Hollywood movie (and if it’s ever made into one, Blomkamp would be a fantastic candidate to helm such a film), packed with dynamic action and characters.
Tin Men is a straight forward novel: the United States deploys their Tin Men across the world to counter hot spots in the Middle East and beyond. Online terror and activist networks have caused their own problems, fueling a sort of low-level, world-wide insurgency. The members of the Remote Infantry Corps see it as their duty to stabilize a world that’s been sliding into decline.
Abruptly, on the eve of a G20 summit, a shadowy movement cuts the power to the planet: satellite-based EMPs knock out the globe’s electronics in advance of a movement designed to level civilization back down to a local level, and to counter the US’s influence throughout the world. Bot Hunters, mercenaries with the firepower and skills to take down Tin Men, begin attacking the the remotely piloted soldiers.
As this happens, the Tin Men discover that they’re on their own: they can’t port back to their own bodies, and if they die in the field, that’s it. While their new bodies are tough, they face a growing force that’ll stop at nothing to take them down. Much of the action follows a squad of soldiers, namely PFC Denny Kelso and Corporal Kate Wade, who face impossible odds when they find themselves trapped in their robotic bodies after the Pulse. With Bot Hunters hot on their tales, they face a desperate rush to escape from their territory and return home.
Golden explores some interesting territory here: realizing their situation, the unit begins to fragment. Some soldiers begin to go rogue, operating far outside of their usual perimeters in their rush to survive, while others attempt to retain some of their humanity by working within their own rules of engagement.
Tin Men is a strange sort of critique on how the US military is perceived and used throughout the world. Since shortly after September 11th 2001, the United States has continually been engaged in combat operations throughout the world, combatting terror groups such as the Taliban or governments such as that of Iraq. Extrapolated further into the future, this mission has continued, with the United States operating under a sort of international peacekeeping or stabilization mission. The soldiers of the RIC certainly believe that they’re doing good work: many believe that they’re working to stabilize a world that’s had some serious problems.
The flip side to this is the shadowy group that seems to have initiated the Pulse: their goal has been to completely undermine the position the US has put itself in for reasons that aren’t entirely fleshed out: Golden’s antagonists look at the use of US military power as a primary motivator, which isn’t too dissimilar from arguments around the world when it comes to the use of Drone aircraft. If anything, Golden looks at his robotic soldiers in the same way we examine drones, which is interesting, but somewhat misguided, considering that the role of aerial drones would occupy a far different position than that of land-based foot soldiers. Much like scientists lament the misuse of science in science fiction narratives, real world policy, technology and military theory can equally be misused in the service of plot.
This is one of the book’s weaker points, and a general failing of military science fiction looking to examine the modern world: speculative futures with the military often rely too much on the present – either in technology, politics or cultural attitudes – while ignoring the level of complexity in a military environment. Tin Men presents an overly simplistic vision of the war on terror.
Does that matter? Not much: the action is squarely on the men and women of RIC, and their desperate rush for survival, is the primary focus here, as well as that of the survival of the US and Russian presidents as well as the at the RIC’s headquarters in Germany, trying to figure out what happened. I’ve been reading Sebastian Junger’s fantastic book War, and he essentially says the same thing: when the bullets are flying, the soldiers on the ground don’t care at all about the bigger picture, and that’s essentially what we have here.
It’s a good reminder that soldier stories aren’t exactly about the military or bigger picture: it’s about the small picture, as the bullets are flying past you. The end result is a fun, exciting book that will lend itself well to the silver screen. Someone call Neill Blomkamp.