86 — Eighty-Six1 is the first volume in Asato Asato’s Eighty-Six military SF series. Illustrations are by Shirabii. Translation is by Roman Lempert. It is a light novel.
The Republic of San Magnolia lost half its territory when the neighboring Giadian Empire attacked with superior numbers and sophisticated autonomous robots. Nothing for it but to rise to the occasion with San Magnolia’s own autonomous weapons.
Regrettably, the Republic’s virtues do not extend to robotics anywhere as advanced as achieved by Giadian tech. San Magnolia’s autonomous robot weapons do not in fact work in battlefield conditions. San Magnolia’s bold visionaries solved this problem with a courageous decision: equip their autonomous weapons with Processors, pilots the Republic’s majority consider subhuman, the so-called 86s.
Needing to blame someone else for the Republic’s setbacks, Milizé’s fellow Republicans decided that the minority Colorata were inimical characters guilty of conspiring with their Imperial cousins. Presidential Order #6609, The Special Wartime Peace Preservation Act, stripped Colorata of their citizenship and consigned them to the 86th administrative territory from which the 86s take their ethnic slur. Colorata were either sent to internment camps to work until dead or assigned to serve as the non-human Processors for the Republic’s otherwise ineffective robotic combat vehicles … until dead.
Major Vladilena Milizé is an oddity, a Republican who remains convinced that Colorata are people, not least because a Colorata once saved her life. Having joined the national defense effort, she gravitates towards serving as a Handler for 86 Processors, relaying orders to the front-line soldiers over an artificial mental link. She stands out because she actually cares if her charges survive. Not that they actually do.
Assigned to Handle Shin AKA Undertaker’s unit, Milizé learns that the unit has an odd history. Not only has it somehow survived the 99% annual fatality rate for Colorata units, its Handlers have not. In particular, the suicide rate for the Handlers of this particular unit is sky high. Perhaps mind-linking with Processors who hate their Handlers is in some way challenging.
Milizé is soon disabused of any delusions she might have had that her kindly feelings towards Colorata in any way compensate for her role in a system designed to exterminate the 86. From Shin and his friends’ perspective, she is just another cog in the genocide machine, her feelings having no effect on their outcomes.
Aside from racial malevolence, the Republican abuse of Colorata had a certain logic behind it. Little information trickles in from the outside world, but the Republic does know the Empire collapsed years ago. The current war is being carried out by autonomous machines, machines the Empire designed to run down after a set time (no robot uprising for the Empire!). All the Republic need to is use up all their Colorata before the robots run down, carry out a vigorous coverup, and no other nation need ever know there were Colorata to be genocided in the first place.
But … the Imperial robots are not merely autonomous. They are capable of adapting to adverse conditions. Once the robots discovered that their native software had a timer, they took on new governing consciousnesses… from the brains of their fallen foes, the 86s.
The war may end but not in the manner envisioned by the Republican High Command.
Amusingly, the author acknowledges that it is odd that a novel overtly set in an alternate world has references to certain practices of our own world and then cheerfully refuses to explain how that could be.
To quote Major Vladilena Milizé’s Memoirs:
No country would ever consider it an act of evil to deny a pig human rights.
Therefore, if you were to define someone speaking a different tongue, someone of a different color, someone of a different heritage as a pig in human form, any oppression, persecution, or atrocity you might inflict upon them would never be regarded as cruel or inhumane.
The Major is clearly aware that the 86ers are just as human as the other citizens of the Republic. Not that she is able, in the course of the war, to do much about official policy, but at least she is aware it’s wrong. This turns out to matter very little.
The prose in this novel is, alas, unremarkable in a way I find frequent in translated works. However, one must admire the determination with which the author declines to paint even the Major particularly favourably. “I feel very, very badly about sending you to certain death at the robo-pincers of unstoppable killbots” does not in fact make up for sending people to certain death at the robo-pincers of unstoppable killbots. Not even when someone does their best to use the resources at hand to make the certain death a drawn-out affair rather than a brief one.
Oddly enough, victims of abusive social inequity prefer something more concrete than thoughts and prayers from their well-meaning allies.
This book was extremely grimdark. But it was intriguing enough that I will seek out further volumes, if only to see how, given the events of this book, there could even be further volumes.
[A note from the editor: The author may be thinking of the 442ndRegiment, which was composed of Japanese-Americans and served in WW2. They died in droves … but I don’t think that was because they were used as shock troops with the intent to kill them off. Lots of 442 veterans here in the islands.]
James here: I suspect this is not the case. There are many models on which the author could draw, closer to hand than the 442nd.
Editor: tell me about it 😊
James: I’m sure commenters will do all the work here.
1: That’s my interpretation of the title that appears in the book: “86 — EIGHTY-SIX, Vol. 1”]