Ironclads by Adrian Tchaikovsky (book review).

April 24, 2018 | By | Reply More

Until relatively recently, Adrian Tchaikovsky was known almost exclusively as a fantasy author, having produced the multi-volume epic fantasy series ‘Shadows Of The Apt’. More recently, though, he has successfully turned his hand to Science Fiction, winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2016 for his hard SF novel ‘Children Of Time’. ‘Ironclads’ is a military SF novella, published by Solaris in a limited edition run of 1000 hardbacks and simultaneously as an eBook.

The story is set a few decades in our future, when a post-Brexit UK has become the 51st State of the USA and is used as a staging post for the American armed forces on their way to various wars going on in continental Europe. Sergeant Ted Regan and his two closest buddies, thin nerdy Sturgeon and tough guy Franken, are ready to get some well-deserved R&R in London when they are sent off to a meeting with a ‘Scion’, a rich guy from one of the big corporations, who lives in a seven-foot tall armoured suit. The Scion introduces himself as Ted Speling, says he’s looking after his company’s interests in England and asks the three of them to go on a hush-hush mission to rescue his cousin, Jerome, also a Scion, who went missing behind enemy lines in Sweden three days earlier.

For Regan and his friends, this is pretty much par for the course. Most of America’s current wars are being fought on behalf of powerful corporate interests and, when it’s necessary, they will roll out their expensive, well-armed Scions to turn the tide. It’s much cheaper, though, to let the poorly-paid and poorly-equipped US infantry fight most of the battles. Further, since the enemy somehow managed to capture Jerome, despite him being in a Scion battle-suit, his uncle is presumably worried that any further Scions sent in after him might suffer the same fate.

There’s no question of refusing Speling’s ‘request’, so Regan, Sturgeon and Franken get on the next military transport plane over to Gothenburg and head for the front, wondering how on Earth they’re going to find a missing Scion. Finding Jerome, however, turns out to be the least of their troubles.

Tchaikovsky has written this novella in the first person, from Sergeant Ted Regan’s perspective and so we see everything through his world-weary, cynical eyes. This lends the narrative an informal, conversational tone, spiced up by the frequent f-bombs that are an inevitable consequence of trying to reflect the language of soldiers under fire. Some may find this a little over-powering but I loved the immediacy of the storytelling, which pulled me right into the centre of the action.

The central characters form a tight-knit group that the reader can easily support through thick and thin. Regan is a little dull but, despite his cynicism, he still has principles and is committed to doing the right thing. Sturgeon has a big mouth and is far too fond of using it but he does tend to realise what’s going wrong well before either of his colleagues. Even Franken is less one-dimensional than he at first appears, although this only becomes apparent quite late in the story.

The politics of this novella are obvious from the start. It’s a pretty brutal satire on the military-industrial complex, suggesting for example that there has been voting reform in the USA to disenfranchise the poor, precisely so that large infantry losses won’t change the course of American military strategy, since the poorer families whose sons and daughters overwhelmingly join the infantry no longer have any political power.

There’s a clear analogy here to medieval times, when wars were started and continued by monarchs and the aristocracy, none of whom went to battle unless they had superior weapons and heavy protective armour, while most of the actual fighting was done by poorly-armed, poorly-armoured and poorly-trained serfs. Plus ça change?

‘Ironclads’ is an exciting military SF novella which dramatises current conflicts between rich and poor, right and left, public and private in a brutally satirical fashion. At the same time, it’s an enormously entertaining story. Do read it if you get the chance.

Patrick Mahon

April 2018

(pub: Solaris, 2017. 160 page limited edition 1000 book hardback. Price: £25.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78108-568-4)

check out websites: www.solarisbooks.com and www.shadowsoftheapt.com

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