Liz Bourke Reviews Ironclads by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Ironclads, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Solaris 978-1-78108-568-4, $30.00, 160pp, hc) November 2017. Cover art by Maz Smith.
Of late I find it difficult to know how to begin to discuss new books. It feels as though I have read so many of them this year that my head is practically bloated with connections and similarities, novelties and clichés, unexpected successes and shocking disappointments. Especially difficult are novellas, whose comparative brevity tends to make them less easy to discuss in depth. That their brevity is part of their point – that they must make their mark in less than half the space of the average novel – doesn’t make matters any easier.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Ironclads is one such novella, published in a limited edition hardcover by Solaris. With the exception of the Clarke-Award-winning Children of Time, most of Tchaikovsky’s novel-length work has been fantasy. Readers will remember his multi-volume Apt series, and his more recent Echoes of the Fall series. Ironclads is science fiction, and not the far-future kind of Children of Time. Rather than the vastness of interstellar space, and the time it takes for a species to evolve into sentience, Ironclads focuses on a handful of people over the course of a few days in a warzone on a near-future Earth. In this future, America’s turn towards corporate libertarian (racist, sexist) hellscape – and military enforcer for the titans of global capitalism – has continued to the point where the USA, after wars in Canada and Mexico, is now at war in Sweden. This is a future where the sons and daughters of the corporate aristocracy – “Scions” – go into battle in impregnable suits of technological armour, which outgun the ordinary grunts by about as much as a warship outguns a sailboat.
Somewhere in Sweden, one of those Scions has gone missing, with his supposedly impregnable armour. A small team of three ordinary soldiers, plus one corporate agent whose bosses would prefer if she conveniently died, are sent to go and look for him: a token effort, one that’s obviously concealing something. Ironclads‘ narrator is the leader of this group of soldiers, an ordinary grunt who’s managed to survive his army career so far through a combination of luck and skill, and, despite his class resentment, doesn’t really seem like he can imagine doing another job. The trail of the missing Scion leads these four through the middle of the warzone – naturally – and sees them encounter giant robots, weird altered wildlife, local civilians, and representatives of the mysterious power to the north: Finland, which has been enhancing or altering its soldiers (and perhaps its ordinary citizens) biologically in ways which completely freak out the Americans, and make the local Swedish folk fairly worried, too.
Tchaikovsky has a deft hand with his worldbuilding, sketching the details of this (frighteningly plausible in some respects) future in quiet asides and off-handed mentions: there’s a Libertarian Church of Christ which seems to be America’s official state religion; institutional sexism and racism seems to have gotten even worse than the present – one of the characters is an extremely competent black woman whose perspective, seen through the eyes of the narrator, provides us with a little more insight into the horrifying injustices of this future than the narrator and his two male companions would alone – and transnational corporations are encouraging international wars to control and profit from the outcomes and the redistribution of power.
The wars of Tchaikovsky’s future use technology that’s brutal, inhuman, and strangely awe-inspiring in its horror. The rich, as always, are shielded from the brutality that affects the rank-and-file, though the ways in which the rich here are shielded from consequences is merely an extension of the ways in which the upper classes have always been shielded from the kind of consequences that predominantly afflict ordinary people. The technological armour of corporate Scions permits them to treat battles as games for their amusement, since they cannot be harmed by conventional weaponry. Even other Scions are unable to penetrate their armour, and are – it seems – unwilling to kill their peers if said armour fails.
As our narrator and his companions travel across the warzone, they find that a Finnish special operations person is willing to give them assistance. They’re not sure why, but it becomes clear that they were never intended to succeed at their original mission. Our narrator is too stubborn to give up, though, and so the team ends up in Stockholm… and uncovers the true reason the Scion has gone missing.
Tchaikovksy’s novella is short, sharp, and not as depressing as its premise might suggest. It’s a solid piece of near-future military science fiction. I enjoyed it. If you’re up for something grim and darkly funny, I recommend it, too.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the February 2018 issue of Locus.