Schlock Mercenary is a long-running webcomic written and drawn by Howard Taylor, available online here. Emphasis on the long-running: Taylor has posted a new strip per day for over 13 years, since the first comic on 2000 June 12. There are a few problems with it, which I’ll touch on below, but I like the comic because it can be described as “space opera with good world-building”.
The eponymous character is Sergeant Schlock, of the special forces squad of Tagon’s Toughs, a mercenary outfit that works contracts throughout the Milky Way. But the main characters of the comic form an ensemble cast, including Captain Tagon and many of the other Toughs, previous members, previous employers, and a group of low-gravity parkour artists. Taylor does a good job with characterization, but here I’ll focus on the overall plots and world-building.
Technology And Economics
A lot of the plot of Schlock Mercenary, especially for the first few years of the strip, has focused on the consequences of the development and use of new game-breaking technologies.
The first and biggest is the teraport – a device that allows faster than light travel by shunting an object through a large set of microscopic wormholes and reassembling it at the destination position and velocity (yes, the pun is made). The Toughs are purchased by a company that wants to use them to demonstrate the capabilities of the teraport in contrast to the prevailing method of interstellar travel – a Milky-Way-spanning network of large wormhole devices called wormgates that have been controlled by a species called the Gatekeepers since before humans learned how to kill things by throwing other things at them.
The implications of FTL (time travel, paradoxes, etc.) are generally ignored – with one major exception that I won’t spoil. But given that particular sample of handwaveium, Taylor does a very good job with is the social consequences of the new technology. First, Tagon and company pull off a series of high-profile contracts – rescuing hostages, breaking blockades of wormgates, etc. They use this to get further investment and plan large-scale expansion, while simultaneously developing and deploying technology that prevents teraporting into a limited area. This is essential to avoid getting antimatter bombs teleported into the command center.
But then the Gatekeepers strike back, first sending lawyers and escalating to fleets of gunships. It develops that some millions of years ago, the Gatekeepers had developed teraport tech, but had been compelled to abandon the technology to avoid a war with an intelligent species based on dark matter (yes, that makes no sense – dark matter is minimally dissipative and does not form small clumps) that objected to the large scale gravitational disruptions of teleportation. Then they had found that having a monopoly on travel was good for business – and also that they could use the wormgates to convert mass-energy efficiently into mass-copied versions of whatever they needed (including people – great for blackmail as long as none of the copies escape).
So Toughs are being hunted by the single largest power in the galaxy. The Gatekeepers have the resources of a half-dozen Dyson Swarms at their disposal. The Toughs won’t survive long enough to realize their dreams of wealth. So they do the only thing they can do: they open-source the technology and spam 30% of the population of the galaxy with the specs. There follows an extended period of disruption and warfare as different groups deploy and use the teraport and the teraport-denial equipment.
At the end of it all, two of the Gatekeeper’s swarms have been destroyed, several billion copied interstellar travelers have been returned home (to the shock of their alternate selves), and a massive AI hive-mind is waging a war against the dark-matter entities in Andromeda – who are called the Pa’anuri. Which brings us to the next topic: AIs in Schlock Mercenary.
Several of the main characters in Schlock Mercenary are AIs. They range from Ennesby, a human-equivalent former virtual-band AI who escaped into the Toughs’ ship computers when they were working a security contract and now functions as an intelligence officer, up through the scale of processing speed to the Fleetmind, a networked AI hive-mind that ends up controlling a large section of the galaxy.
The way AI is handled is interesting. AIs are distinct personalities, determined by their memories and programming. But they change drastically depending on how much processing power they have available and on how they are networked. Different AI personalities can merge and blend and subdivide again. The Fleetmind is the limiting case of that. It started as the AI of the Toughs’ former ship, styled Petey (the ship had been called the “Post-Dated Check Loan”), who goes independent and starts building and taking control of as many ships as possible. Then Petey and a large number of other ship AIs merge together to form the larger Fleetmind during the fight with the Pa’anuri, and refuse to disband until the threat is neutralized. With total-conversion power plants, omni-purpose fabbers that are a cross between 3D printers and grey goo, and large numbers of robotic and AI-brains-in-forced-grown-biological-bodies to do the hands-on work, the Fleetmind has the resource base to rapidly become one of the major political powers in the galaxy.
This poses a problem. Why are humans and other biological lifeforms able to compete at all with the AIs and their robots? The in-universe explanation from Petey as to why the Fleetmind isn’t solving all of the probems in the galaxy is that it is currently devoting all of its energies to fighting the Pa’anuri – who have decided to sterilize Andromeda of all normal-matter life because it might assist the Fleetmind. “I can’t help you punch through the teraport denial field and teleport out your abducted captain because the energy required to do that is needed to save a million people from orbital bombardment” is a pretty good argument. But on the setting-wide scale, it doesn’t really wash. Galactic culture in the Schlock Mercenary universe has been active and star-faring for millions of years, if not longer (the oldest individual people are over 10 million years old). Why didn’t anyone construct a galaxy-spanning benevolent hive-mind a million years ago?
The real reason of course is that Taylor wanted to write humorous space opera / military scifi, and that doesn’t work if there are no fights the mercenaries can fight.
Strategy And Tactics
The mercenaries like to fight, and will use everything from unarmed combat to stone axes to total-conversion bombs to do so. And they are appropriately paranoid. Senior officers in Tagon’s Toughs have epaulet insignia that double as grenades – in the most extreme case, as anti-matter bombs. Sergeant Schlock doesn’t get epaulets, but he carries a miniaturized conversion-powered plasma cannon that doubles as an emergency rocket wherever he goes.
This works because Taylor set things up so that every tactic can potentially be countered by something else.
Your ship has teleporting torpedoes? We have teraport-denial systems. You have relativistic projectiles to take out the generators? We have sensor nets out light-hours in every direction and counter-missiles ready for intercept. You have specialized high-power wormhole generators to overload the denial system? We have point-defenses to take out anything that does manage to teleport in.
Moving to personal combat: you have impact-proof armor? We have lasers and plasma weapons to cook you. You have super-effective heat sinks and reflective coatings? We have artificial gravity guns. You seek to bypass the guns entirely by using nanotech to hack the hardware and the people? The guns won’t kill them, but we’re back to thermal sterilization. And so on.
The set-up lets Taylor be creative with how the Toughs handle the different jobs they take, be that working private security or fighting a system-full of Gatekeeper weapons or accepting a contract to destroy a reality TV show. It also lets him force them into situations where most of their usual tactics aren’t useful: you can’t use gravity weapons when the Pa’anuri will kill you for doing so.
This is a good strategy for writing an on-going series with widely-varying plots.
With all the fighting comes injuries. This is one point where the joints in the world-building start to show. The Tough’s standard on-board medical kit can re-build people from their necks down and it’s a standard first-aid procedure to slice off a casualty’s head and stuff it into a bag loaded with preserving nanomachines. Kevyn Andreyasn, the company’s second-in-command and resident mad scientist, has been through that process many times over (he’s the one who keeps anti-matter bombs on his shoulders). This also extends to cosmetic surgery – some characters have lost weight this way, others have gained it or gained height.
It gets more extreme. Petey; some clandestine elements of the United Stations of Sol, the largest human government; and a few other groups have access to nanotechnology that both backs up human minds redundantly throughout the body and gives gray-goo-level regeneration. And the Gatekeeper’s technology can be used to read and mass-copy willing people as well as unwitting victims. The last results in the Gavs – 950 million copies of one physicist who figured out the Gatekeeper-mass-copy mechanism and used it to avoid being killed (at least, most of the copies avoided being killed – the original died quickly).
With this sort of technology, no one should ever die. With the super-regeneration, even if they were cooked into a plasma or ripped to pieces and thrown into an annihilation plant, the gate-copy technology could be used to store someone as well as copy them and restore from the backup. Even subtracting both of those, if you can buy functional second-hand full-body-regrowth kits off of the internet with a mercenary outfits’ petty cash, why does anyone on most of the planets the Toughs visit die? Maybe they don’t, or may the kits can’t combat subtle neurological problems, which kill humans before they reach 200 years old or whatever. But either situation would change society to something very different from what we see in the story.
So that is one limit of Taylor’s world-building.
Perhaps I should have led with this, but it’s also a good note to end on: the aliens and non-human biological intelligences that Taylor has designed. Earth-descended people at this time include humans, uplifted chimps, uplifted gorillas, and two different species of uplifted elephants. The humans are arguably split into several different species by extensive genetic engineering in some populations. The true aliens are more alien.
Those on the Toughs’ roster either don’t need to breath or can breath oxygen-rich atmospheres, which is pardonable in the interests of having a common life-support system for the entire outfit. They do have some diversity: uniocs have only 1 large eye, and don’t keep their brains in their heads (headshots don’t kill them); there is another species where individuals have multiple bodies that are linked by radio. There is an excess of bipeds with bilateral symmetry, though, and a large number of the alien species fall into rubber forehead territory. But there is one interesting exception: the amorphs, of whom Schlock is the representative sample.
The amorphs evolved over the last 10 million years, starting as self-repairing organo-silicate distributed computer storage systems that were fortunate enough to be able to survive in the wild due to their habit of being able to consume just about anything. Their mouths are their only fixed features, able to break down just about anything by secreting suitably powerful acids. Other than that, they are something like sentient muscular mud – with incredibly discriminating senses of hearing and touch and smell and immune systems to match their extreme omnivore nature. They get eyes by harvesting optical units from a local tree.
All of this makes Schlock very hard to kill, which is useful in his line of work. He can be stabbed, speared, and shot repeatedly and not be harmed. Explosives will scatter him across the room (he blows himself to pieces once because of his habit of storing his weapons in his mouth). But after being shattered, he will pull himself back together. Scattering the pieces slows down that process, since not all of the pieces have the same sensors or have the same memories stored in them. Depressurization is not a problem, freezing is temporarily disabling and eventually fatal, but high temperature burning will kill him in short order.
The amorphs reproduce by merging and splitting, producing offspring with shared knowledge and traits of their parents – although Schlock identifies as and is referred to as male, he doesn’t actually have any biological attributes that can be called “sex”. Over time, mutations creep in and the amorphs evolve.
What confuses me is why there are so few amorphs off-planet. They are technologically primitive, living in the ruins of the long-past culture that built their ancestors, when galactic civilization descends on them. That provides some excuse – most of them haven’t had time to assimilate the new culture and technology. But why are they technologically primitive? Did they simply not have enough incentives to develop advanced technology when nothing could eat them and they can eat almost everything? But they’ve had a long time, a lot of partially-functional ruins, and a history of fighting each other. So I don’t think that holds up, and I wonder why the amorphs hadn’t developed more tech and spread through interstellar space on their own.
Why is Schlock a mercenary, and not a functionally-immortal planetary-scale corporate oligarch dealing in personal weapons and genuine imitation Ovalkwik?