In Ironclads (2017), the gap between the haves and have-nots has become drastically wider in this near-future novella, especially in the military, where it’s become popular for rich young men, called Scions, to engage in war, battling foes in high-tech, weaponized and near-impenetrable suits of armor paid for by their wealthy family corporations. It’s a little like having Iron Man, Iron Patriot, and several of their friends in your military, though without, apparently, the flying ability. In contrast, the regular army “grunts” are underpaid and denied most of the high-tech protections available to the Scions, who always outrank everyone else.
Sergeant Ted Regan of the U.S. 203rd Infantry Division and two of his men, Sturgeon and Franken, are on two weeks leave in England (now a territory of the U.S.), preparing for battle against the Nords (formerly Scandinavians) when they are called to London and given a special mission: One of the Scions, Jerome Speling, has gone missing on the Nord front, and his cousin assigns Regan and his men to a covert mission and rescue Jerome, or at least find out what happened to him. Since Scion armored shells are supposedly infallible, the Speling family is concerned. Regan’s team is joined by two others, a weasel of a man named Lawes and a black woman named Cormoran who’s a drone specialist, but they’re still severely understaffed and ill-equipped for such a dangerous mission.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s new novella dishes up imaginative, fast-paced military science fiction in the form of a rescue mission against long odds, with a large side of social commentary. Tchaikovsky takes some of the more worrisome elements and trends in our world today, and extrapolates from there. Global warming has caused the oceans to rise and wiped out many coastal cities, with Thailand and the Netherlands gone the way of Atlantis. Fundamental religion, sexism, and discrimination play an increasingly large role in society. Corporate interests and wealthy families rule, with the Scions’ role in the military being expressly analogized to feudal days, when the sons of the rich would go off to battle in armor unavailable to the common men, protected by the fact that if they ran into trouble, they were more likely to be captured and ransomed than killed. Now the military technology has brought them back to the battlefield:
They were like gods: human figures head and shoulders over the soldiers around them, made of gleaming silver and gold and darkly menacing black steel. And they were gods, in a way. This was what human ingenuity could achieve, when price was no object. The corporations wouldn’t shell out to give us common grunts that sort of protection, but it was only the best when their sons wanted to play soldier.
Sergeant Regan, an everyman type of character, is the jaded but still somewhat idealistic narrator of Ironclads. He’s a fairly standard military type of character, but some of the others in his group are more memorable, particularly Lawes, whose many illicit connections are helpful but untrustworthy, and Cormoran, with her fleet of small, high-tech drones and a past history that she eventually discloses to Regan, causing him to reevaluate her role and even the entire mission.
The twists in the plot are intriguing, doubling down on the social themes that Tchaikovsky explores in Ironclads. In fact, there’s a subtler meaning to the use of “ironclad” in the title, suggesting the protections that money and secrecy bring to the privileged few. On one level this novella is enjoyable as a straight-up military SF adventure, but it has additional depths and implications that are worth pondering.
Ironclads was published on November 7, 2017 in a special limited hardback edition; the Kindle edition will be published on December 31, 2017.