Review: The Road to Damascus by John Ringo and Linda Evans
If a machine is told to do something, it typically follows its programming to the letter.
But what happens when the machine in question is deliberately designed to think for itself, until and unless someone puts a limiter on its artificial mind?
Can anything break the limiter without destroying the mechanism? And could such a device possess a rational – if not an immortal – soul?
BOLO Mark XX SOL-0045, nicknamed “Lonesome Son” by his commander and called “Sonny” for short, begins the story headed to a rebel camp. The dissidents have fought against the government of the planet Jefferson for several years, waging a guerilla campaign for freedom that has cost many lives on both sides and caused a great deal of destruction. Sonny has been tasked with destroying the renegades’ largest camp, where enemy leader Commodore Oroton has stationed his troops and their families.
Sonny is most unhappy with this assignment. Prosecuting a civil war was never in his programming; he was designed to fight the Deng and other alien threats to humanity, not humans. Humans are supposed to command and befriend BOLOs, to give them needed direction so they attack the enemy and do not harm innocents. This bloody, despicable conflict has harmed more innocents than even Sonny can count, and he wants it over almost as much as mankind does. More to the point, his physical condition is poor, and he has no human commander, something which leaves him feeling rudderless. He answers directly to the president of Jefferson, who has ordered him into the enemy’s stronghold without backup in an attempt to claim victory over the revolutionaries. Tired of these conditions, which he has labored under for some time, Sonny is a particularly cranky BOLO in this moment.
Though he has yet to outthink Commodore Oroton and dislikes the eerie silence hanging over the encampment, the idea of the war ending fills Sonny with a grim kind of cheer. Just a little further and he can end this mess, which will allow him to finally rest. The carnage will cease, and things will no longer be so complicated or dispiriting. Perhaps, somehow, he can have a new commander assigned to him when this over.
But Sonny soon finds his hopes frustrated by a four-year-old insurgent with a popgun. The only visible survivor of a chemical attack on the rebel base, the boy stands his ground and refuses to acquiesce to SOL’s orders to move aside. When the BOLO attempts to use his weapons to remove the child from his path, the guns will not fire. He finds he cannot simply roll onward and crush the boy, either; his treads refuse to carry him forward.
For the rest of that day and on into the night Sonny, a Mark XX BOLO who has lived one-hundred-twenty years and fought in countless battles, is held at bay by a four-year-old.
Running diagnostics on his systems, SOL finds a software block in his circuits that prevents him from continuing with his mission. Unable to work around or overcome it, his only chance is to break it. To do that, he has to go back through roughly twenty years of history – from the day he was loaned to the planetary government of Jefferson to the present moment.
What he finds will put the conflict in a new light entirely, and it will cause him to question not only what he has been told, but everything he has done. More importantly, he will wonder if he can be forgiven.
The characters are all well drawn, to the point one easily becomes invested in their adventures and wants to see them succeed. Aside from Sonny there is his commander, Major Simon Khrustinov. Though remanded to the backseat of the narrative due to an injury midway through the book, Simon is a fighting man with his hands tied by politics. It is not for nothing that, once he is sidelined in the novel, Sonny is easily ordered about by those with an agenda to enforce. Without Simon’s guidance, the BOLO would have fallen into their hands sooner.
Kafari Camar, the woman who eventually marries Simon and has a daughter with him, proves her mettle throughout the book. Forced to watch her husband nearly assassinated in a political move, then be sent away to recover safely, she sees her homeworld fall into chaos and worries for her daughter’s wellbeing as she is drawn in by the politicians’ propaganda. When they finally go too far and civil war erupts, Kafari gets her daughter to safety before joining the battle for the heart and soul of Jefferson.
Yalena Khrustinov, Simon and Kafari’s daughter, represents a generation taught to be dependent and self-absorbed so that they may be better controlled. When circumstances finally force her to face years of brainwashing, she proves to have inherited both her parents’ fire and steel. A much more likeable character by the end of the book, there are times a reader will wish she would get her “wake-up call” earlier in the narrative.
Jefferson is another planet, with its own geography, fauna, and culture. For all that, though, there are parallels to the present and callbacks to Earth’s past, giving it a feeling of being set in an alternate world. By far, the most exotic parts of the book are the chapters focusing on the mind of Sonny. A BOLO is completely unlike any modern machine and the glimpses of SOL’s thought processes are absolutely fascinating reading.
An unabashedly right-wing book, if you want something that explores history and the present with an eye to realism, The Road to Damascus will more than satisfy. Even if a reader disagrees with the politics, the fact that the novel goes against the grain of most sci-fi dystopias will make it worth reading. There are so many sci-fi tales that draw from the same political playbook on the market for their story that finding one which does the opposite is a relief.
Innocent citizens are vivisected – dissected alive – in the novel. A Reign of Terror that sees body parts strung from streetlamps occurs when the conflict finally begins. There are also discussions of mutilation as part of genocide against the population of Jefferson, along with talk of sex, pornography, and a fair amount of profanity. Younger readers and especially children are not the target audience for this book.
Who is it for?
Students of history who want a frank look at the past being repeated in the future, as well as those tired of the same political arguments rehashed unbelievably in the majority of entertainment. Those who like living tanks or machines that think will definitely enjoy this novel for Sonny’s perspective. Anyone who feels isolated by the common narrative in science fiction today will find The Road to Damascus a refreshing alternate view of the genre.
Why read it?
It is an honest story with a living tank seeking redemption as the main protagonist. Linda Evans and John Ringo’s prose bounces off the page, and their story is thought-provoking. Is there any better reason to pick it up and give it a read?
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