I'm a terrible sucker for stories of robots, stories that go beyond the cliches of 'robot who wants to become human' or 'robot who wants to destroy humanity'. As a form of life, as things that live in a way unlike us but that we can understand, they just have so much potential for uniquely fascinating stories. Of course, being non-humans ninety-nine times out of a hundred they're forced into one or the other of those cliches, their actions revolving arbitrarily around humanity, seemingly incapable of defining an existence for themselves that isn't about either emulating or exterminating us. But there is still that one time, and so every once in a blue moon you can find a story like Tony Ballantyne's Blood and Iron.
On the world of Penrose, robots are the highest form of life. These robots are strange creatures indeed, compared to what we're familiar with from other stories. They have sexes, and children, and those children are created through a form of duo-sexual reproduction, they treat bodies like clothing, they have states and empires, they go to war with rifles and swords and awls to punch through skulls, they politick, they have love and cruelty and a strange lack of curiosity about their surroundings... Ballantyne creates very particular robots, robots that could not have existed in any other story setting, marking the world of Penrose out from any other on which robots rule right from the beginning. And boy, does he create a lot of these particular robots. The novel is divided up amongst viewpoint characters, of which there are five principles and one who gets just a single section for herself, and each of those viewpoint characters routinely interact with anywhere from one or two to five or six other characters, along with the inevitable gaggle of background characters. At 553 pages Blood and Iron is a fair-sized book, and Ballantyne packs each page so full of dialogue and action and detail that at some points it was, frankly, a little overwhelming.
But ultimately, this book succeeds at nearly everything it does. It begins and concludes a civil war and a rebellion against an emperor, gives an answer to the question of how a robot mind should be woven (a key recurring theme), concludes a search for lost love and traces the events of two separate contacts between the robots of Penrose and humanity. Yes, there are humans here, but Blood and Iron does its robots the honour of treating them as independent life-forms of their own. Interestingly, although the key robot states in Blood and Iron are loosely modelled after feudal Japan and a sort of exaggerated, almost cartoon-ified militaristic Spartan city-state, their interactions with humanity put me more in mind of the unfolding of contact between the indigenous tribes of North America and the explorers, traders and colonists of England and France. It makes perfect sense; to borrow a term from Iain M. Banks, both North Americans and robots found themselves confronting an Out Of Context problem, an issue completely beyond the scope of their society pre-occurence to prepare them for. How, after all, could you plan for something you don't even know exists? Like the North Americans, the robots try a variety of responses to the presence of humanity, a strange new breed of person with technology unlike anything previously encountered and internal divisions and motivations the robots can't easily grasp. And like the North Americans, the robots' cultures are profoundly, perhaps irrevocably changed by this interaction. I don't know if Ballantyne had the North American indigenous people in mind when he was writing this, or perhaps some other group like the Australian aborigines or the Indians under the British Raj or Africa during the period of European colonial conquest, but the parallels are most certainly there, and make the book more interesting for their presence.
One thing I should note, and it's unusual for me to say so, but I didn't always enjoy this book. Usually I find books make it fairly evident early on if they're for me or not, so if I'm not enjoying a book at some point it won't become a book I ultimately enjoy, because it will keep doing the thing I'm not enjoying. But Blood and Iron is different, in that respect. Without giving too much away, there are two nationally-bounded narratives running through this book, that of Sangrel in the empire of Yukawa and that of Artemis City and the continent of Shull, and although they're both interesting it seemed, as the book went on, that there was nothing to connect them. And really, if you're going to read over five hundred pages worth of story, you want it to all be worth something as a unified whole in the end. Otherwise, why not just release two separate novels? But the writing was still solid enough that, even as my concern about the end result mounted, I continued to push onwards. And I was pleasantly surprised when Ballantyne finally made the connection, doing it in such a way that I would never have suspected. The connection actually runs through much of the book, but isn't made clear to the reader until near the very end of one of those two seemingly disparate narratives. For that deft bit of forethought, I tip my hat indeed to Tony Ballantyne.
Blood and Iron is apparently part of the 'Penrose Series', following the first book Twisted Metal. Thankfully Blood and Iron stands quite well on its own, using a prologue that presumably explains the events of the first book to bring readers up to speed, a prologue done in a delightfully in-universe mytho-historical style that keeps it from being dry and dull. There are some aspects in the story suggest a larger narrative at work, of course (particularly the fate of Calor the Scout, the meaning of the metal moon over Penrose, the purposes of Morphobia Alligator and Banjo Macrodoceous, and the stories of Nicolas the Coward and the Four Blind Horses), but even if Ballantyne decided to give up writing tomorrow and never penned another word, Blood and Iron would still stand as a satisfying singular narrative. Although the book is certainly good enough that I'd be more than happy to read more about the robots of Penrose, so I hope Ballantyne isn't planning on retiring just yet!
The particular tales Blood and Iron was telling might have reached a satisfying end, but the wider tale of the robots of Penrose is still far from finished.