by Timothy Lane 4/14/14
by John Ringo and Linda Evans • I reviewed this book when it came out in paperback nearly a decade ago, titling the review “I eat peasants for breakfast” (which I got from an episode of The Wild, Wild West). It’s no less valid today than it was then; indeed, one might say that this is what would happen if the Fascist Messiah decided to run for a third term in defiance of a Constitution whose strictures he’s shown no interesting in obeying. I will add that a Bolo (or Bolo Combat Unit) is a self-aware supertank that operates under human command, and fairly well known in science fiction fandom.
There are many ways to describe this book. It’s a study in the political disagreements between urban and rural voters, and where they can lead (which may have been inspired by recent events in Britain). It shows how quickly a free people can lose their freedom if they fail to value it enough. Many might call it a typical Baen book. Personally, I call it the Atlas Shrugged of science fiction, superbly demonstrating the consequences of sacrificing freedom for nominal security.
Technically, this is a book about a Bolo, and its adventures on the world of Jefferson. Much of the book is written from the Bolo’s POV and additional parts from its human associates, starting with its initial commander, Simon Khrustinov. The two, having survived some brutal combat that has left scars both physical and mental, are sent to the planet of Jefferson to provide protection in case of an attack by an alien force, the Deng – or any other problem, of course. Ultimately, their biggest problem won’t be the Deng.
Jefferson, as might be guessed from the name, is a strongly libertarian state based on the United States as idealized by some, with (for example) a variant of the Second Amendment even stronger than our own (including the final comment, “And this time we mean it”). It’s not exactly paradise (there are dangerous predators out in the country, which is one reason the farmers need arms), but it’s a nice place overall. And then comes POPPA.
POPPA is a paternalistic (of course) party with an extremely ruthless politics; at one point, the leader will arrange a riot as well as its savage suppression nominally by the forces of order, simply to gain sympathy votes (in which he is quite successful). Even Adolf Hitler never pulled that one. Eventually they succeed, and within 20 years turn a relatively libertarian democracy into a vicious totalitarianism. The lot of ordinary people is actually declining, and the farmers (outnumbered by the urban proletariat) are effectively slaves – all of this under a variety of policies reminiscent of modern liberalism. This is true not only of their welfare and taxation policies, but also their new system of public miseducation, the steady erosion of parental authority over children, their strong anti-gun position, and the savage police state they set up despite their early civil liberties posture.
Khrustinov, with his Bolo, is a major potential threat. But he has his weaknesses, marrying a local woman and having a child. Step by step POPPA works to destroy the child’s loyalty to family, and then it strikes directly against Khrustinov. Eventually he’s forced out before he can insulate the Bolo against control by the totalitarian government (which thus gains the ultimate anti-riot weapon). His family is driven away as well, and only a poorly educated, incompetent (and thus politically loyal) mechanic is permitted to service the Bolo.
There’s just one mistake that POPPA made: no matter how much you fool people, they retain the capacity to realize the truth. All they have to do is think for themselves, and look for the real facts. Also, their use of the farmers as hate-targets inevitably means that an armed group (despite all the laws) is implacably opposed to them, once it can gain leadership. And the Bolo, though obligated their orders, has constraints which ultimately will prove decisive.
For me, the most impressive part is the Bolo’s explanation, on pp. 463-5, of the nature of POPPA to its mechanic, Phil. Based on extensive observation and its knowledge of history, the Bolo notices that the party is run by a tight elite (wealthy and well-educated, the latter mainly through private education) that buys a membership base in the inner cities with “cash payments, subsidized housing, subsidized education, and occasionally preferential employment in government positions” – a very familiar litany today. The education is poor quality, and the cash payments only allow one to remain on the dole, but (the Bolo points out) that’s their purpose. In addition, the Bolo notes that despite the populist rhetoric they not only harm the masses, but personally feel contempt for them (as so many liberals, like James Carville and Michael Moore, show today for Americans, or at least large classes of them).
In just two pages, Ringo and Evans describe what I’ve spent several years documenting about today’s Democratic Plunderbund. There is much to like in this book – a fine story that can occasionally be rather painful (police states can be that way), but ultimately redeeming. It shows that most people, no matter their flaws, are worthwhile if they let themselves be (except for a few who are genuinely, unredeemingly evil). But it should surprise no one that I find the political aspects so superb. Without ever taking political exposition too far (as Rand occasionally did in Atlas Shrugged), the authors have produced perhaps the best SF political work I’ve ever read.