Columbus Day: Expeditionary Force, Book 1, by Craig Alanson
Ever since Robert Heinlein published Starship Troopers in 1959 there has been an increasing market for “military science fiction”, particularly from the grunt’s perspective. This is different from the view of war from the perspective of governments or alien invasions, all of which have their unique models and highlights in the history of science fiction. Sadly, these are what most people think of as “science fiction” (helped not a little by Hollywood). As a result I’ve had trouble getting a Catholic friend to read A Canticle for Liebowitz, even though it was one of the books that pushed me toward joining the church, and why some authors of incredible books like The Sparrow resist the idea of their books being labeled as science fiction even though they fit the genre.
The grunt version has devolved a bit from Heinlein and they tend to get repetitive. They’ve also multiplied quite a bit, perhaps because we’ve been generating new hot war veterans for the past 15 years. This book started out following the format: Sure we’re in the future but as far as soldiers go we may as well be shipping in to Guadalcanal. The rations are crappy, the weapons are worse than they could be, and every sergeant or chief is a cranky dad-like figure who’s tough as nails.
It took about halfway through this book for it to transform itself into a really fun story. At the start Spc. Joe Bishop is home in Maine on leave from duties in Nigeria when, on Columbus Day, a spaceship operated by gopher-like bipeds called the Ruhar crash in his home town. It’s part of a world-wide invasion. Bishop manages to capture one. Another alien force saves the day and earth allies with them. Bishop is assigned to the UN Expeditionary Force to capture and hold a foreign planet. It eventually becomes clear that earth has bet on the wrong horse and that the Ruhar may not be as bad as thought. It’s lucky that the invasion happens on October 12, because “Independence Day” was already taken. That bad this far into the book.
Ninety percent same-old up to the middle of the book when Bishop discovers an artificial intelligence. The AI, who comes to be called “Skippy” in the book, thinks of humans as “monkeys” but needs Bishop to help find others like him made by an ancient race, the first sentient beings in the universe.
This transforms the book and makes it totally worth reading. The rapport between the Bishop and the AI make for fun dialogue and having the AI’s intelligence on their side makes the earthlings a suddenly formidable force.
Other than taking so long to get to the good stuff the book is also weak on what’s happening on earth. It’s clear that bad things have happened and that the economy has collapsed but the whys of this are foggy and we only learn about it through dialogue with barely any of the story covering this.
If you take on the book have patience, or skim until you start seeing the word Skippy. It turns a dull book into a fun read, enough so that I already have Book 2 in the queue.