Bolo! Review

On a friend’s recommendation, I just read David Weber’s Bolo! this weekend, and from early in I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading a modern variation on Asimov’s I, Robot (the short story collection, which has little relation to the movie by the same name), and I enjoyed it almost as much.
Some of the similarities are apparent on the surface. Both are a collection of stories about a particular universe, and focusing on the development of a particular technology within that universe over centuries. In both cases the technology is robotic – for Asimov, classic robots, and for Weber massive highly-weaponized tanks with integrated AI to allow better combat responsiveness and autonomy. The stories hang together in both cases not just because they are about the same machines, but also because the lessons learned about embracing these technologies are reflected in the new forms they take in the more advanced models introduced in the next story.
The underlying themes the collections play with are also similar. How much trust should we put in our technology? Why is it that, even when faced with overwhelming evidence that the technology outperforms humans, we still want people “in the loop”? How can programmed machines deal with the frequently contradictory forces at play in most moral decisions? Will advances in technology eventually destroy us? Or save us?
If I had reservations about Weber’s work, it was that the questions and answers did not, ultimately, feel significantly different than Asimov’s from sixty years ago. The technology was likely a more accurate estimation of how full fledged AI will come to pass – via military projects and embedded in a non-humanoid system. But as a modern work (the stories were written in 2005), it felt like the most salient new theme was the question of how we might change as people as we are able to start integrating our intelligence with machine intelligence. And yet there was very little said here, even though technology to accomplish exactly this is introduced in the later stories. This is the new question that is being asked, and it felt odd that a book that does the work to introduce exactly the technologies that are projected to bring about “The Singularity” shied away from discussing that concept in any depth at all.
That said, the stories were fun, and as someone who doesn’t tend to read military fiction, I actually found the detailed descriptions of the battles readable and even interesting, probably because I was interested in the logic that the AI was applying in reasoning out their strategy. It felt like a plausible future, given our current uses of robotics in warfare. Worth checking out if you enjoy technology-oriented sci fi.

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