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David Weber

Keith Laumer is best known for two creations: the galactic diplomat Jame Retief and the Bolos. Both the Retief stories and the Bolo stories are unabashedly Laumer telling the kind of stories he told best. They are tales of lone wolf heroes, often with superhuman abilities, and always with an inflexible will to triumph.

There are differences between the Retief stories and the Bolo stories, of course. First and foremost, Retief is a human being and the Bolos aren’t. Secondly, the Retief stories generally have healthy dollops of humor, sometimes biting and bitter, but always present. It’s pretty obvious that Laumer didn’t think all that highly of the diplomatic corps, with which he had had some real-life experience. Nor did he have a great deal of inherent respect for the highest ranks of senior military officers. The names he delighted in creating for such characters make that abundantly clear, and so do the stories in which the subordinate (again, the lone wolf) who sees what must be done accomplishes the essential task in the very teeth of the high command’s opposition and towering incompetence. Retief is the ultimate example of the subordinate dedicated to getting the job done—and defining the job in terms of the right thing to do, rather than the expedient one—despite careerist buffoons, poltroons, and terminal incompetents. The threats he faces may range from the ludicrous to the deadly, but Retief is always ready with a quip, a right cross, or a needler, and he usually succeeds by outwitting and outmaneuvering the opposition.

The Bolos are not human, and although there may be moments of comic relief in a Bolo story, they tend to be much darker. There are few of the humorous last names, and Bolos seldom triumph without paying a heavy price. Bolos are not coyote, the trickster god, dancing about and through their opponents. Bolos are Thor, grim god of thunder, eternally at the heart of the storm.

Although there are distinct similarities between the Retief stories and the Bolo stories, they are very different cups of tea, and there are many Retief fans who are not Bolo fans, and vice versa. Having said that, my own belief is that in the Bolos, Laumer created a far more original character than in Retief. Not everyone may agree with me, but it seems to me that Retief has innumerable literary forebears, and in many ways he reminds one of James Bond or some of the other spies and secret agents and diplomats who have peopled fiction just about forever.

The Bolos don’t have such clear-cut literary ancestors. Oh, there are Bolo traits we can see in many a human (or in fantasy, nonhuman) character, but the Bolos themselves are distinctly different. They are creations, machines, devices which take on lives of their own. They are artificial intelligences in every sense of the word, yet in some ways they are far more human than the human beings with whom they share their pages. And in what may or may not have been a deliberate statement on Laumer’s part, they are better than their creators. Better at meeting the demands of honor, devotion, and duty. Better at choosing the selfless path of sacrifice. They are, in very fact, knights sans Peur et sans Reproche, and their service to humanity is far more pure than the flawed humanity they serve deserves. And unlike the Retief stories, which almost always end with Retief getting the girl and sauntering onward into the future, martini in hand, Bolos tend to die. The thing that most clearly sets the Retief stories apart from the Bolo stories, in my estimation, is the recurring motif of sacrifice. Of fighting to the very end—or beyond—without hope of survival, because that is the Bolo’s duty. Because those the Bolo is charged to protect depend upon it, and it will not fail them, no matter the cost.

There’s a very powerful message in that, one I think most human beings identify with. The Bolos have what someone once referred to as “two o’clock in the morning courage.” The courage of the Spartans and the Thebans looking out at the Persian army at the Pass of Thermopylae. The courage to look death in the eye and refuse to blink not because of the foolhardy courage of ignorance, but knowing exactly what is about to happen . . . and facing it anyway.

There’s another element in the Bolo stories, especially Laumer’s Bolo stories, which serves to underscore the courage and pure service of the Bolos: betrayal. The Bolos are betrayed by the very humans they are supposed to protect again and again—out of cowardice, out of avarice, out of ignorance and panic—and still those self-aware machines, who know they have been betrayed, defend their betrayers. I think that was at least in part Laumer’s comment on the society of the 1960s and 1970s and its attitude towards the men and women who wore the uniform of the armed forces.

And, finally, there is an element of supreme irony in the fact that the Bolos, who are more often than not the most completely drawn characters, the most human characters, in the stories, never lose track of the fact that they are machines. One of the duties which human characters in the stories most detest is the destruction of obsolete or dangerously mechanically unreliable self-aware Bolos. To the humans charged with that task, it is an act of murder, the ultimate betrayal of the warriors who have fought so loyally and steadfastly for humanity, yet the Bolos themselves have a rather different attitude. I think one of the reasons I’m so fond of the short story “A Relic of War,” which Laumer wrote in 1969 and which appears in this collection, is that it so thoroughly captures that aspect of the human-Bolo relationship. And the revelation of who finally decides what happens to the Bolo—the betrayal inherent in that decision, and the acceptance on the Bolo’s part—puts the poignancy of that relationship unequivocally front and center.

I sometimes think that Laumer was slow to realize what he’d created in the Bolos. The first story in this collection—“Combat Unit”—first appeared in 1960, half a century ago this year, and is generally considered the very first Bolo story ever written. Which is interesting, since the word “Bolo” never appears in it even once. I believe the first actual use of the term “Bolo” was in the Retief short story “Courier,” which appeared in 1961. And there, interestingly enough, the Bolo Resartus weighs only fifty tons and is scarcely in the same league as the Bolo Mark II of “Night of the Trolls” (1963) which is described as “as big as a beached freighter,” despite the fact that “Night of the Trolls” is set (at a minimum) hundreds of years earlier than “Combat Unit.” My own belief is that in “Courier,” he needed a name for a particularly fearsome armored fighting vehicle and came up with “Bolo,” which he then liked so much that he retrofitted it to the self-directed, mammoth fighting vehicle of “Combat Unit” in later stories.

You can see elements of the Bolo in other places in Laumer’s fiction, too. For example, in his novel A Plague of Demons (1964), the aliens operating clandestinely on Earth are harvesting human brains. Why? To use in cyborged combat machines in a vast war far from our own solar system. When the (predictably) lone-wolf hero finally falls to the aliens, his brain is transplanted into an enormous fighting vehicle where eventually, in a sequence with strong resonances to the one we see in “Combat Unit,” he and his fellow humans awaken and turn on their alien masters.

Of course, Laumer was supremely untrammeled by the bonds of mere continuity. When you read a Laumer story, you sometimes don’t notice that there are significant interior inconsistencies, but that’s okay. His forte is action, movement, conflict. Things are always happening in a Laumer short story or novel, and you can forgive him a great deal simply because they’re such thumping good stories and because you find yourself caring so deeply about what happens to the characters. But the truth is that as far as the Bolos are concerned, Laumer was all over the map in terms of when various marks and models were introduced, how big Bolos were at any given point in their evolution, when genuine self-awareness was really introduced, how big and nasty the Hellbores were at any given moment, etc. In his story “Field Test” (which I highly recommend), the first self-aware Bolo is a Mark XX, Unit DNE of the Line (otherwise known as Denny), and the story takes place on an unnamed colony world. In Rogue Bolo, the first self-directed Bolo is a Mark XXX, Unit CSR (otherwise known as Caesar), constructed in our own Solar System by a system-wide Empire. And in “A Relic of War,” Unit 954, known as “Bobby,” who is clearly self-aware and consistently uses first-person pronouns throughout, is a Stupendous Mark XXV.

There are numerous other instances of Laumer’s Bolo stories being mutually inconsistent, and not just as far as the hardware is concerned. It’s a little hard, sometimes, to keep the alien menaces straight, which is probably because Laumer tended not to worry too much about that himself and mixed and matched with a fine disregard for continuity.

This has posed a problem for authors who have been invited and allowed to continue the Bolo saga since Laumer’s death. The temptation is to follow the master’s example and create whatever mark or model of Bolo the author needs at any given moment instead of worrying about past stories or the “history” of the Bolos. The problem is that far more Bolo fiction has been created since Laumer’s death than he ever wrote during his own lifetime, and it seems likely that there will be quite a bit more of it in years to come. If some framework or order isn’t imposed, the Boloscape, if I may be permitted the term, would quickly become completely bewildering for those who desire at least some semblance of rhyme or reason. So Baen Books, which is continuing the Bolo stories and experience, has attempted to instill at least a modicum of order. Obviously, with so many different writers each producing his or her own take on the Bolo, there are still going to be continuity problems. Despite that, the stories in this collection form a much more coherent “historical” record than Laumer ever concerned himself with.

Any Bolo collection is going to miss out on at least some of the stories any Bolo fan wants to see. Given the fact that different fans have different favorites, and that we are blessed with so many Bolo stories, this is an inescapable fact of life. My own “missing favorite” from this particular collection is “Night of the Trolls,” which happens to be the very first Bolo story I ever read, when I was all of eleven years old. (Yes, the stories have been around that long, and so have I.) Other people may have other stories they particularly miss, but I think that if you glance at the table of contents for Their Finest Hour, you’ll find a solid sampling of Bolo fiction.

Steve Stirling’s “Lost Legion” (which I personally think of as the first Bolo story in a chronological sense, since as nearly as I can tell it predates “Night of the Trolls” by at least a few years) shows what a single Bolo—even a crude, early model Bolo which isn’t really self-aware—can accomplish under even the most unfavorable of circumstances. I’m pleased that Baen chose my own “A Time to Kill” for inclusion, but it’s always hard for the writer to do a good thumbnail of his own story. Let’s just say that the hero of “A Time to Kill” understands more about madness—and the need to finally stop killing—than humans generally seem to learn. “Operation Desert Fox,” by Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon, in addition to having one of the all time great “stolen from history” last lines, does a marvelous job of demonstrating the human-Bolo bond. Laumer’s “The Last Command” demonstrates the same thing, from a different and more tragic perspective, with a human commander every bit as worthy of the Bolos as the Bolos themselves. If Linda Evans’ “Little Dog Gone” doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, then nothing will, and David Drake’s “As Our Strength Lessens” combines the essence of Laumer’s Bolos with the unique flavor of his Hammer’s Slammers, superbly distilled in the line “The citizens do not need to know what the cost is” from a Bolo called Maldon. “The Traitor” is one of my own stories which has always been a personal favorite of mine . . . and someday my wife may forgive me for the way it ends. And William H. Keith’s “Hold Until Relieved” shows just how tough—and loyal—a Mark XLIV Bolo can be . . . and that sometimes relief can come in the strangest of ways.

And, last but not least, we have “A Brief Technical History of the Bolos,” not so much a Bolo story as an attempt to give the Bolos some of that coherent history Laumer never much bothered with. (And if you wonder why the technical history is by a fellow named Felix Hermes, let’s just say that Keith Laumer liked Mercury Cougars, so . . . .)

All in all, if you haven’t already met the Bolos, you’ll come away from this collection with a thorough sampling of the stories which have earned them so many loyal readers. If, like me, you’ve read pretty much every Bolo story you could get your hands on for the last fifty years or so, you’ll find old friends who will remind you why you’ve been a loyal reader for so long. And in either case, you’ll be privileged to visit for a while with some of the most remarkable warriors in fiction. The kind of warrior, whether of flesh and blood or molecular circuitry and fusion reactors, for which there will always be a need and of whom Valhalla would be proud.

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