REVIEW SUMMARY: A better story than the silly-sounding title led me to believe.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The wartime adventures of a soldier symbiotically connected to an intelligent super-tank with virtual reality capabilities.
PROS: Interesting blend of military sf and VR; fast-paced first half.
CONS: Slower second half; longwinded back stories.
BOTTOM LINE: A fun book.
I had avoided this book for years. The title just seemed too silly to me to take seriously. Then I happened to read the excellent first chapter of Leo Frankowski’s The War with Earth only to find that it was a sequel to A Boy and His Tank. Obviously a serious rethinking was in order. I picked up A Boy and His Tank and was pleased to find that the book was not silly at all. The lesson learned is not to judge a book by its title.
A Boy and His Tank is a combination of military science fiction and virtual reality. The first-person narrative tells the story of Mickolai Derdowski, a prisoner given the choice of death or service in the New Kashubia military. Opting for life, Mickolai is assigned an intelligent super-tank. The New Kashubians are hired as mercenaries to fight a war on New Yugoslavia. The book follows Mickolai’s story through a grueling war beginning with his tank assignment. The tank is controlled by an intelligent supercomputer but ideally requires an operator because an “associative thinking” human has superior battle tactics than a logical computer. That tank itself is programmed to be loyal so that the loyalty of the person inside it does not matter. But for those who cooperate, the tank can be quite pleasant. The tanks have the power to create a virtual Dream World in which the operator can experience just about anything, from physical training to education to sex. Like all tanks, Mickolai’s tank, who he eventually names Agnieshka, is also programmed to appear in Dream World as someone who is physically attractive to its operator. Mickolai’s adventure is thus structured as alternating sequences between battle sequences and virtual reality.
This book is the kind that pulls you in quickly. From the opening sequence of Mickolai’s tank assignment, we are immersed in a wondrous setting of high-tech warfare and virtual reality. Mainly, the VR scenes offered a break away from the battlefield but they were interesting in their own right. Both elements are combined to provide a (mostly) captivating adventure story. (More on the “mostly in a bit.) I loved the battle sequences even though the high-tech tanks usually meant they were resolved within seconds. The book’s cover blurb likened this book to both Keith Laumer’s Bolos and David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers. While I haven’t read those, this book makes me want to.
Mickolai is a very likable character. His crime was benign, so I found myself rooting for him and his persistent attitude. The other main character is the tank itself. Agnieshka is a super-smart machine in reality, but somewhat of a manipulative persona in virtual reality. I liked the way she pushed Mickolai to be a better soldier. Although the use of sex as a lure was a bit frequent, I could see how its inclusion made for a better (and more realistic) portrait of the power of the Dream World. Mickolai’s girlfriend Kasia was mostly relegated to a secondary role, but she provided an interesting dynamic into the Mickolai/Agnieshka relationship.
I have some issues with the pacing of the story. The first half seemed to whip along at breakneck speed, something that is essential for and the kind of adventure story this was trying to be. However, the second half of the book moved more slowly and felt padded. The ending seemed to start in the middle of the book when Mickolai is trapped behind enemy lines, but the resolution dragged on for the rest of the book. Added to that, the narrative throughout the book would occasionally sidetrack into one back story or other (like the history of the founding of New Kashubia) that was way too detailed. While those back stories were inventive the extra length did not add anything significant to the story. If those sections were trimmed down a bit, the novel overall would be the kind that was captivating throughout instead of “mostly” captivating.
Even so, this was a fun book well worth the read. By mixing virtual reality with military sf, the book had a distinctly likable flavor and Frankowski’s to-the-point writing style was well suited to making this adventure story come alive.
One final note: The paperback version I read contained a post-story author’s note stating that the paperback version omitted the final chapter of the hardback version. That missing chapter is to be included in the early part of the sequel. Needless to say, I look forward to digging in to The War with Earth.