Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Scions have no limits. Scions do not die. And Scions do not disappear.
Sergeant Ted Regan has a problem. A son of one of the great corporate families, a Scion, has gone missing at the front. He should have been protected by his Ironclad — the lethal battle suits that make the Scions masters of war — but something has gone catastrophically wrong.
Now Regan and his men, ill equipped and demoralized, must go behind enemy lines, find the missing Scion, and uncover how his suit failed. Is there a new Ironclad-killer out there? And how are common soldiers lacking the protection afforded the rich supposed to survive the battlefield tomorrow?
In Ironclads, Adrian Tchaikovsky follows up his 2016 Arthur C. Clarke award for Children of Time with a fast-paced but thoughtful novella. It examines a similar theme from his Guns of the Dawn work, namely the fights ordinary people find themselves dragged into due to wider, political machinations. On the surface, Ironclads appears to be an updated take on a familiar tale; a group of army grunt underdogs sent on a dangerous rescue mission to a perilous land to save some hapless, stranded soul. However, this is less Saving Private Ryan and more Dirty Dozen as the team fight against increasingly outlandish mechanical enemies (and each other) in order to survive. What elevates it is the focus upon the everyday people presented throughout the story’s commentary against class barriers and status.
Told in first person, the reader is guided by Ted Regan, a soldier in a time of conflict between the US and Sweden, with Finland and Russia wading in for good measure. However, ordinary men like him now serve as mere cannon fodder, whilst the rich play at war in near-indestructible suits of armour emblazoned with their company’s logo. The book quickly highlights that this is a world where the gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically; the rich, favoured sons never step outside their compounds without either civilian or battle-ready Ironclad suits, whilst the poor take a reverential approach to these new, corporate-sponsored gods. Wars are fought by business men, not countries.
Tchaikovsky’s vivid use of language brings to life the world we have been dropped into. His colourful descriptions of an England post-Brexit take some satirical swipes at the UK’s uncertain situation, and certainly won’t ease the fears of Remainers. Overall, Ironclads’ relevance to the current political climate is clear, painting a future where Trump-style values have won out, where money and big business will always win. The hints at the lot of women in this brave new world, especially women of colour, are slight but chilling, pointing to a society regressing even as it advances technologically.
Yet, this is still an enjoyable, action-filled and just plain fun novella, with a set of likeable and diverse characters. The reader might glimpse the skeletons of the archetypes beneath now and again, but they are fleshed out through the occasionally sardonic narration, allowing the reader to start caring about what happens to this dysfunctional group of misfits. The team’s relationships are predictable but believable, be they growing, begrudging trust, to familial squabbling belying a deeper camaraderie. The characterisation of Regan sometimes dips too far into the beleaguered everyman persona to make a strong individual impression, but the conversational style of Regan’s narration also injects some droll and much-needed humour into the proceedings.
Whilst affable enough, the male characters are upstaged by their female counterparts time and again. It is interesting that, in a world seemingly run by men, it is the women who take control of the plot at decisive points. The characterisation of the female soldiers and fighters runs the risk of leaning towards what has now become the “strong woman” cliché, but they are driven by their own motivations. Tchaikovsky manages to steer just clear of formulaic portrayals – yes, these women are strong, but this doesn’t preclude vulnerability, either.
The story leaps from one action set-piece to another, with some neat sci-fi nods littered throughout. Ghost in The Shell’s Tachikomas come to mind as the team meet lethal, near-sentient AI droid units, some of which draw their design inspiration from the Martian fighting machines in War of the Worlds. The book’s venture into other sci-fi aspects are less convincing. Despite Tchaikovsky’s careful establishment of a worryingly possible future, the depiction of the terrifying Finnish fighters jeopardises the reader’s suspension of disbelief. However, it ultimately adds to the absurd and desperate situation Regan and his group find themselves in.
In Ironclads, Tchaikovsky gives the reader a crash course introduction to a progressively dystopian world where worship of the rich has reached even more alarming levels. At times, the sci-fi elements teeter towards less believable fantasy, threatening to undermine its own grounded, polemical tone, but Tchaikovsky helms this in by focusing upon the humans trying to survive in a world indifferent to their worth. This depiction of humans without agency over their own lives, subject to the whims of those with power, is what ultimately gives Ironclads its heart.