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Literature: Bolo

"Bolos might fail. They might die and be destroyed. But they did not surrender, and they never — ever — quit."

A series of stories, originally by Keith Laumer, that were later expanded into a Shared Universe by other authors. They detail the exploits of the Bolo, autonomous AI tanks that are supposed to have evolved from the standard main battle tank of the 20th century.

These aren't your normal tanks. For one, their designers decided that bigger was better, and since the only thing that could really take down a Bolo was another Bolo, they just kept building the Bolos bigger and bigger, to the point where even the stealth tanks mass 1,500 tons.note 

For another, they are keenly intelligent, often with surprisingly human personalities. Quite a few of the stories focus on the relationships between the Bolos and their human commanders, because no matter how well they get on, the mountain of armour-clad metal bristling with weaponry is programmed to/wants to (the line gets murky at times) defend the squishy humans at all costs. For while there have been Bolos who were historians, knights, poets, spies and gardeners, they are warriors first and foremost, born to fight alongside their human comrades.

Not to be confused with someone the police wants to find, a type of tie or the traditional weapon of Argentinian gauchos.

The proud history of the Dinochrome Brigade provides examples of these tropes:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Averted.
    • Played with in "Traitor." It turns out that a supposedly "rogue" Bolo was carrying human survivors, and took a massive amount of damage to what is essentially its brain and thought everything with a weapon was trying to attack said human survivors (Including other Bolos). That's right: in order for a Bolo to go rogue, it had to have a massive chunk of its brain vaporized, essentially lobotomizing it. And even then it was still trying to protect humanity.
    • Another story involved a Bolo that literally drives itself insane with the paranoia involved in working out untold trillions of scenarios for alien attack on the planet it's protecting. Once it goes insane, it becomes even more dependable, since the deepest programming in all Bolos is an unbreakable loyalty program that activates if the Bolo becomes dangerous to its own side. The Bolo recovers after an attack, which breaks the endless self-reinforcing programming loop that created its paranoia.
  • Alien Invasion: Bolos, given their status as defenders of humanity, are usually among the first ones to be called up to stop any invading aliens.
  • Alternate History: The first Bolos were supposed to be made in the year 2000 by the General Motors company. Clearly, this has not happened. Averted, however, in that the first stories where this was established were written years before the cutoff date.
  • Apocalypse How: The Final War ends in a Galactic Societal Collapse for both sides, with a large number of Total Planetary Extinctions.
  • Artificial Intelligence: The titular supertanks of the series have been given increasingly powerful artificial intelligence as they advanced through the centuries, and models starting with the Mark XX were given full sentience. Out of fears by humans of the titanic tanks going rogue they were hemmed in by Restraining Bolts that restricted them from using their full intelligence any time outside of being directly engaged with the enemy, and even then they required a human commander to make the call to go to full alert.
  • Badass Army: Even just hearing of a Bolo being deployed is enough to make some soldiers soil their shorts in fear, especially if one doesn't have a Bolo equivalent of their own handy.
  • Bee Bee Gun: In the novel The Road to Damascus, written by Linda Evans and John Ringo, at one point in an alien invasion of their world, some protagonists throw the bee hives used for making honey into a barn where several of the invader's soldiers are found. The numerous stings of the swarming bees, designed to be more aggressive than normal to force out native competitors, kill the soldiers.
  • Bizarre Alien Psychology: In one story, the villains are a bunch of reptilian matriarchal Blood Knight aliens that are all about killing anything that have "Kill and Eat!" as a battle cry and will not accept any surrender... especially because apparently they have a very different way of thinking of people surrendering than humans. When the female main character of the book decides to be Defiant to the End and keep on staring into the eyes of a taller alien when she approaches to kill her, the alien is puzzled because that pose (on your knees, raising your head) means "please kill me" in her language... and sees it even odder for the alien that a female did such a thing. This confusion keeps the girl alive long enough for the hero and the Bolos to pull a Storming the Castle.
  • Colony Drop: Ziggy in Old Guard. After the ship carrying him to the contested planet is shot out from under him, he ultimately drops himself on the enemy.
  • The Constant: In "The Night of the Trolls"
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: If it's not aliens, it's usually these who are the enemies of the Dinochrome Brigade.
  • Crew of One: After the first few versions, automation allows tank crews to be condensed down to one person. Later marks can even operate completely independently, but by their programming the ideal operational status is to have a human in the control seat.
  • Deployable Cover: In some stories it's mentioned that Bolos have camouflage netting and its spiritual successors available for concealment purposes.
  • The Determinator: As long as a Bolo has at least some functionality, it will keep fighting until either it's completely destroyed or it accomplishes its objective, even if it's been repurposed for another entirely peaceful task. Some times, it doesn't need weapons OR mobility, as when one was disarmed and remade for an agricultural purpose but still managed to defend the world it was stationed on with chemistry and bioengineering against an alien invasion.
  • Deflector Shield: "Battlescreens" provide protection, do Energy Absorption and render physical impacts harmless, so killing Bolos requires Energy Weapons or really big explosions, and even that doesn't always work. One story involves a Bolo that had been buried because it had been nuked and while it was damaged, it was still operational... just too radioactive to be useful near anything else. note 
  • Downer Ending: A lot of Bolos tend to sacrifice themselves for the sake of humanity, and the Bolos are generally the most likable characters in the story. The end of "Though Hell Should Bar The Way" is particularly a downer, standing out above the other examples in the stories. Out of all the Tearse on the planet, only a handful will survive, but how much longer they will last is unknown. Plus, the Melconians are getting away with information on the Bolos, and the Final War is looming on the horizon now, meaning that the survival of the Tearse — not to mention everyone in this entire story — is low, to say the least.
  • The Dreaded: Bolos are this for all of their opponents.
  • Dungeon Bypass: As they grow bigger and heavier, the concepts of 'obstacle' or 'barrier' become less meaningful — they blow everything in their way up, iron it flat through the sheer weight of their passage, or both. Bolo Mark XXXIII's take it one step further. They are 32,000 tons, have more guns than any previous model, are the largest Bolo type ever made, and, oh yeah, one more thing: it can fly at 500 kilometers per hour (310 m.p.h.)
  • Energy Absorption: Naval ships and later model Bolos have "Battlescreens", which both absorb attacks a la force shields AND transfer the absorbed energy to the onboard batteries.
  • The Federation: Here called the Terran Concordiat.
  • Fictional Document: There are several, including guides to the various Bolo types.
  • Forever War: The Melconian-Human 'Final War'. Nobody knows who started it because those present at the first battle were in no condition to report afterward, and it didn't end so much as run out of planets to kill. A few million survived out of trillions on both sides. The situation was recognized as being so dire that the humans (and the Melconians likely did this as well) sent colony ships on one-way trips beyond the farthest reaches of explored space, in hopes that at least one colony might escape. It worked, after a fashion.
  • Fumbling The Gauntlet: One of the key stumbling points in the Final War is known: Standard Melconian First Contact procedure is to forbid all contact between the two cultures until their ruling body comes to a decision, and took a hard line against any attempts at contact. The Concordiat policy is to get a mutual non-aggression agreement in order to normalize relations as soon as possible, and kept trying to make contact with the Melconians. The Concordiat thought the violent refusal to speak meant Melconians were hostile. Melconians thought repeated attempts to make contact meant the Concordiat was hostile. Neither side could comprehend the other's actions.
  • Fun with Acronyms: A Bolo's unit designation is a three-letter alphabetic designator. His name is usually recursively based on it; for example, the very first self-aware Bolo, a Mark XX designated DNE was called "Denny" by his commander and support crew.
  • Forgotten Superweapon:
    • In "A Relic of War" a Bolo sits in the courthouse square of a small town. The children play on it. Several other stories feature lost Bolos reactivated by chance or hiding out as tractors.
    • A couple of stories involve Bolos that have been buried, in one case for centuries and the location forgotten. The 'lost' buried Bolo had even forgotten what happened to the rest of the Bolos. They were hiding in plain sight of everyone as communication satellites. A human realizes this just in time to call down Death from Above on the alien invasion fleet.
  • Gender Is No Object: while technically, as machines, Bolos have no gender, there are those who identify more as males or females. One prominent example of the later is Nike, who actually falls in love with her human commander.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: A common occurrence with Bolos.
  • Honor Before Reason: Bolos picked up a bit of this. In Laumer's short story "Field Test", the first self-aware Bolo makes a suicide charge Out of the Inferno that causes the enemy to break and run. When asked why, they expected it to demonstrate some superhuman strategic acumen that its human commanders missed. They're awestruck by it's real reason: "For the honor of the regiment."note  This has since become the catch phrase of the Bolos.
  • Human Popsicle: In "The Night of the Trolls".
  • Impossibly Graceful Giant: Bolos are often described as moving far more gracefully than a multi-thousand-ton block of flintsteel has any right to.
  • Instant A.I., Just Add Water: Averted. The first Bolos are not only non-sentient and unintelligent, but merely big tanks with some automated features. Later automation that lets them operate without a human is STILL not intelligent and can only follow pre-set mission plans unless a human is there to tell it what to do. It takes centuries of directed AI research before the big, automated tanks become sentient in any meaningful way.
  • In Name Only: "Road To Damascus." While there are parts that are Bolo-related, vast swathes of the book have absolutely nothing to do with the tanks, and are a mouthpiece for the author's political views.
  • I Shall Fight No More Forever:
    • In one short story set at the very end of The Final War, "A Time to Kill," a Bolo has become so sick of the bloodshed that he refuses a direct order from his human commander to attack a hopelessly outmatched Melconian force.
    • Another story, set in the immediate aftermath of the Final War, has a Bolo operating a ship (human commander long dead, but still going through the ritual of asking the corpse for orders before doing what it thinks best). Upon finding a planet with a tiny settlement of Melconians, only the oldest of which were alive during the war proper, the Bolo decides that it doesn't need to sterilize the planet because they can't be Melconians if there's no Melconia.
  • Kill Sat: In "Ploughshare", the orbital communication satellites help turn the tide of battle. It helped that they were actually Bolo units simply assigned to another task at the time.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: The Bolos are designed as such. And since they're machines without human weaknesses, (instead their own robotic ones) they are able to live up to the ideal. This trope is taken literally in "Camelot", where Bolo unit 721-KNE is knighted and takes on the name Sir Kendric Evilslayer.
  • La Résistance: The main protagonists of The Road to Damascus are in opposition to a dictatorship that's using their Bolo as a means to suppress dissent, in the later part of the book.
  • Lightning Bruiser: The Mark XXXIII Bolo masses 32 thousand tons. Its top speed? 500 kmh (310 MPH) when in flight (yes, you read that right), and 105 kmh (65 MPH) when on land.
  • Ludicrous Precision: In dialogue (internal or with others) Bolos always measure things down to thousandths of a second. Justified because, well, they are giant computers with multiple gigatons of firepower. Having them be inaccurate would be frighteningly bad.
  • Macross Missile Massacre: Standard fit for most marks is a VLS battery mounting everything from SAMs to ICBMs.
  • Magnetic Weapons: Part of the secondary armament from time to time; one type of infinite repeater is a rapid-fire coil gun.
  • Mayfly-December Romance: One story has a prototype Bolo whose commander has fallen in love with her. She realises that the feeling is mutual then curses her designer for instilling the ability to have such emotions into a functionally immortal battle machine, while he is destined to die. Subverted heartbreakingly at the finish.
  • Medal of Dishonor: Sonny in The Road To Damascus gets one of these every time his corrupt government masters use him against civilian protesters. When he finally begins his Zeroth Law Rebellion, his first act is to shoot the medals off.
  • Military and Warfare Tropes: Pick one. Chances are it's in here.
  • Military Mashup Machine: Later Marks of Bolo are Land Battleships. And with the drones and flight ability the last ones become full fledged airborne aircraft carriers.
  • More Dakka: The "infinite repeaters" fitted as point defense/antipersonnel weapons can be anything from flechette launchers to railguns to lasers. Later models even use smaller versions of the Hellbore Wave Motion Guns as their "infinite repeaters." Heck, looking at some of the technical manuals, by the time of the Mk. XXXIII, the Hellbores mounted as point defense weapons are actually more powerful than the ones initially mounted as primary weapons on earlier Bolo marks.
  • Mundane Utility:
    • One Bolo once had a huge bulldozer blade mounted on its front armor so it could do some excavation work. Others have disguised themselves as giant tractors, or even been put in orbit as comsats.
    • In one story, a de-militarized Bolo was put into use for agriculture. However, while its weapons were removed, the directive to protect humanity wasn't, and it used its biological research and manufacture abilities to engage in biological warfare to defeat the aliens attacking the world it was assigned to.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Used, but also subverted.
    • A few prototype units lost in the war where the depots working on them were taken out. The Mark XXXIIIs and beyond are these as the factory on Luna that built them was blown up with the rest of the moon.
    • The Prototype Bolo with advanced Hyper-Heruistics, a Mk. XXIV named Nike, is a played-with example of this. Her creator is long dead and the facility that built her was wiped out by an attack at least seventy years before. Once she is destroyed, some of the secrets of Hyper-Heruistics were gone... but later records show that her chassis was taken apart and what was learned from her remains was applied to the next generation of Bolo.
  • Nuclear Option: Several versions of Bolos have nuclear weapons available to them, above and beyond the fusion detonations utilized by Hellbore cannons.
  • Nuke 'em: Averted. The nuclear weapons available to some versions of Bolo are only sparingly used, and that only when the use of force has been escalated through the other options available.
  • Old Soldier: As mentioned, Bolos can stay in fighting shape for a very long time.
  • One-Man Army: A main battle Bolo is a Made of Iron Super Soldier with centuries of experience of tactics. If they're on your side, they're your best friend and The Cavalry rolled into one. If they aren't on your side, you're in for a world of hurt. However, even though Bolos are massively powerful and all the things stated above, they are usually assigned in groups like any other military unit.
  • Pick Your Human Half: Later marks of Bolos can actually fuse themselves with their human operators.
  • Psychic Link:
    • A technological subversion. Many later model Bolos have the ability to network their knowledge/senses for increased battle awareness.
    • Mark XXXIIIs take this one step further; they can directly link with their human commanders, giving the combined human/Bolo awareness both the massive logical processing, battlefield expertise, and centuries of experience possessed by the Bolo, and supercharging the inductive logic humans possess up to Bolo thought-speed, which was the original goal of the human/Bolo mindlink. As an unexpected side effect, while Bolos are safeguarded up to the eyeballs to keep them from losing control over their emotions and bloodlust during combat, humans have no safeguards.
  • Proud Warrior Race: The Bolos seem to have been half-programmed, half-developed into this.
  • Read the Freaking Manual: Used as the punchline to an epic pun in the story "Operation Desert Fox", involving a Bolo named after General Rommel and the Trope Namer for Magnificent Bastard.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: One story is about an out-of-the-way colony that demands a military outpost, hoping to get a full base full of soldiers with money to spend on their local economy. The interplanetary government doesn't want to, because of the massive expense and nonexistent strategic value of the colony, but it's the colony's right to have one if requested. It turns out the regulations don't actually specify how many soldiers are required, but merely a minimum logistical value... so they can send a single older Bolo and a single pilot. The pilot's career is unlikely to advance further in such a location, and the locals hate them for not being that economy-boosting full detachment of soldiers (Of course the Bolo and pilot turn out much more useful than the base full of soldiers, eventually).
  • Restraining Bolt: The titular A.I. supertanks had been given full artificial intelligence with the Mark XX model, but various restraints were put on their sentience in all but full-up battle mode out of fear of their going rogue, and required a human supervisor even though the AI could think and act much faster than a human.
  • Robosexual: Not actually carried through to the trope's logical conclusion, but several Bolo commanders have been mentioned as having developed romantic feelings towards their Bolos. This is recognized as a major issue for human commanders, who grow too attached to the Bolo they command and are devastated when the Bolo is killed in combat.
  • Robot Names: The names used for Bolos by the humans they serve are derived from the three letter designations given to them by the manufacturer.
  • Robots Think Faster: Bolos think on a very fast clock speed, often running through entire logic chains in .034 milliseconds, complete with sesquipedalian Internal Monologue.
  • Sapient Ship: It's mentioned that several human ships have controlling AI, and it's also implied in some stories that Concordiat Warships are similar to Bolos.
  • Sapient Tank: Bolos from the Mk. XX model onward are sapient, although before the Mk. XXIV the sapience was only in combat mode. Prior to the Mk. XX, their computers never exceeded limited, partial sentience at best, and the really early models were simply automatons that eased the workload of their human operators.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: A mercenary captain's reaction upon learning that a Bolo is active, even though he has two rough analogs to Bolos under his command. Though he can't leave as he's already taken delivery of his payment, and his employers would be... unhappy.
  • Shout-Out: In "Operation Desert Fox," a Bolo named RML ("Rommel") is critically damaged. His operator repairs him using the instruction manual. When Rommel asks how O'Harrigan was able to repair him, he says the Trope Namer quote for Magnificent Bastard ("You Magnificent Bastard! I read your book!") and starts laughing. This example also counts as a Crowning Moment of Funny compared to the rest of the stories.
  • Spaceship Girl:
    • Some Bolos are quite female and feminine while being space-capable, with male service crews reacting appropriately. A gender inversion (masculine Bolo, a female crewmember's fixation) also occurs.
    • In "Miles to Go," one commander falls in love with his female-persona'd Bolo.
    • In "Old Soldiers," the female pilot of a Bolo gets killed, but is uploaded into her Bolo's secondary survival computer... and continues the relationship with her boyfriend (later husband). Thanks to cloned tissues, they're even able to have kids.
  • Standard Sci-Fi Army: While the stories focus on Bolos, we do see infantry and other units from time to time. Usually while being torn to pieces by a Bolo or being rescued by one.
  • Standard Sci-Fi History: From World War Three (stage 2) up to the first hints of recovery after the collapse of the Concordiat (early stage 5.5).
  • Super Prototype: Nike from "Miles to Go" was an advanced AI testbed which was accidentally forgotten about on a backwater planet. Despite it taking eighty years for her to be rediscovered, she's still smarter, faster and deadlier than the production models which 'replaced' her, since the attack which destroyed the record of her location did the same to the lab which built her.
  • Tank Goodness: Takes this further than anything. A Mark XXXIII is a literal Land Battleship that can fly, with enough firepower to be designated as "Planetary Siege Units." Earlier models were mere "Continental Siege Units", as in, one Bolo could lay siege to an entire continent.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: Played straight, subverted, averted, played with... This series does it all. Played straight in that... well, if you've gotten this far on the page and you can't see how this is played straight, you should probably just go back and re-read them. Also, some Bolos are given to pull a Roaring Rampage of Revenge if their commander is killed. Averted, though, as Bolos are also highly intelligent, and will often point out ways that do not involve blasting their enemies with their most powerful weapons until the ground is a radioactive cinder. Why use the anti-starship gun when you have an anti-personnel rifle with pin-point accuracy that works just as well? On occasion, Bolos will even suggest a method of resolving a conflict without further bloodshed.
  • True Companions: Bolos are endlessly loyal to those whom they deem worthy of it. This is actually a problem for the Concordiat, as humans often reciprocate those feelings, and thus are less likely to send their Bolos into harms way... which is a pretty big problem for operators of mobile weapons of mass destruction.
  • Turned Against Their Masters: Rare, but when done the Bolo in question will still, at some level, continue to fight being subverted. It will escape control, and then it will come for you.
  • War Is Hell: Even Bolos can be affected in the end, with one unit becoming so disillusioned with the Final War with the Melconians that it refuses to fire on Melconian refugees that may well be the only survivors of the entire race.
  • The War on Straw: The Road to Damascus, authored by John Ringo, is mostly a novel about how liberal politics are evil and wrong, featuring over-the-top caricatures of politicians Ringo dislikes as villains and many characters whose names are anagrams/soundalikes of modern American political and media figures at the time of writing. One of the leaders of the resistance is even an Expy of Rush Limbaugh. After the first fifty pages or so of the novel, the Bolo that is ostensibly the focus of the story rarely appears, and when he does he spends most of his time pontificating.
  • Warrior Poet: The Bolo "Nike," is definitely one of these; both her creator and her pilot love poetry and frequently quote poems at her... which she gladly reciprocates.
  • Wave Motion Gun: When humanity switched from using projectile weapons to energy weapons, these were the logical replacement to the main gun that modern tanks carry.
    • Hellbores, the standard armament on Bolos, are fusion cannons rated in megatons per second, the weapons derived from the main guns of space battleships. The larger Bolos mount several, and later models of Bolos are fully capable of engaging and destroying orbiting warships.
    • A few stories include Bolos equipped with Hellrails, several Hellbores of larger output than the main weapon, which can only fire upwards. These are explicitly for engaging spacecraft in orbit.
    • At least one story explicitly mentions that the mere existence of these weapon systems has rendered combat aircraft obsolete. Literally the only vehicle capable of surviving combat against a Bolo long enough to matter is another Bolo. Basically, if at any time the Bolo can draw a straight line between itself and you, you are in Hellbore range and therefore only exist as long as it allows you to... or at least until you are the highest priority target.
    • During the Final War, standard procedure was to approach any planet with a Bolo on it from the opposite side of the planet as the Bolo. Using the planet itself as cover so the Bolo won't shoot down your spacecraft.
  • Wham Episode: For all of the stories "The Greater Machine," and "Though Hell Should Bar The Way," it's known that aliens are supplying the Terse with advanced weapons (they're a bronze-age culture, and they have plasma cannons.) The aliens responsible turn out to be the Melconians, performing eugenics experiment on a race they created... and gathering information on humans before official first contact.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Gets a bit weird when the tanks themselves angst over their human colleagues growing too attached to them.
    • In one story a Bolo states that the reason Bolos carry a human commander on-board is a deliberate attempt by humanity to subvert this. The human doesn't noticeably increase the Bolo's fighting capability but humans feel a need to share the danger that they send the Bolos into.
    • At one point in "Though Hell Should Bar The Way", one character has a rather horrified Not So Different moment when she realises that the Melconians have created a fully sentient, sapient race in the Teorse, and are using them as disposable Red Shirts... but is humanity's use of Bolos so much better?
    • Overall, the stories are pretty good about this, with the Bolos being the most sympathetic and well-developed characters. It's often surprising how many tearjerkers what are essentially absurdly powerful land battleships can pull from a reader.
  • You Shall Not Pass: A fairly common way for Bolos to go. The Legacy of Leonidas is Thermopylae IN SPACE.

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