(2010) Tony Ballantyne, Tor, £16.99 / Can$34.99, hrdbk, xiii + 431pp, ISBN 978-0-230-73861-4
Though this is the sequel to Twisted Metal, it is perfectly possible to jump straight into the Penrose trilogy with Blood and Iron. The set-up, the reader quickly discovers, is that Penrose is a planet of sentient robots and that the robots view their world (and the universe) with a mechano-centric perspective: indeed the notion that biological intelligence exists is an extremely novel one. However this novel concept is one that the feudal, warring robots of Penrose are forced to accept as human arrivals begin to interact with Ballantyne's robot protagonists. The humans are clearly interested in Penrose's resources (which itself is a little odd given the interplanetary resources available to a space-faring culture outside of a planet's gravity well) but some are also interested in how robots came to inhabit the planet.
The story is told from the perspective of a number of different characters, including: a rebel leader bent on his city dominating all; a refugee cum captive worker seeking her spouse; an ambassador from a robot emperor who is worried that humans are taking too much from his master's dominions; a city general; and (only very briefly) a human teenager. All of which gives us a good perspective as to what is going on. Having said that, this perspective is nearly totally from the robots side and the translation devices the humans wear have a censoring mechanism. In short, it is clear that we the reader, as are the robots of Penrose, unaware of the humans' true motives as well as how the planet came to be the way it is.
The previous book, Twisted Metal, reads very much like a work of fantasy with huge conquering armies, feudal-like societies with castes, mythical legends and elements of what might be magic but dressed up in technological terms (electromagnetic auras and so forth) but raises in an SF reader's mind a number of implicit questions such as the robots origins and how come the robots have a humanoid form as well as dimorphism given that they are alone on Penrose (until that is the human visitors arrive). While such questions remain unanswered (and could niggle readers of the first book), it is clear that the author intends to address them as the robots explicitly ask them in Blood and Iron. In short the Penrose books are not in fantasy with the superficial trappings of SF, but have SF right at their heart even though the books' narrative very much has the feel of epic fantasy.
The two novels to date have a number of allegorical elements: for example, changing the terms of two of Penrose factions to democracy and communism would not affect the story's development a jot. Another example of allegorical content might be that of the impact of an advanced culture (the humans) on a primitive one (the robots) just as in the real world more developed nations have on less-developed countries today. In short there is a lot going on.
So where is all this going? Well clearly the author will tell us in his own good time. Of course, if you like both fantasy and SF then there is no problem. For someone like myself who has a decided preference for SF over fantasy (sorry but that's me) I do find the sword and sorcery flavour just a little irksome, but then Ballantyne goes and puts in a solid SFnal teaser and I am hooked again. Indeed Blood and Iron is decidedly a more SF read than its predecessor Twisted Metal notwithstanding the firmly fantasy feel to both. The author now has raised my expectations, and given his previous (first) new-wave-ish, hard SF trilogy that was packed with sense-of-wonder, I do hope that I will be satisfied with this trilogy's conclusion in the next book: my curiosity is decidedly piqued. What is going on?
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