Self-published, 2013, 338 pages
In the 20th century Earth sent probes, transmissions, and welcoming messages to the stars. Unfortunately, someone noticed. The Galactics arrived with their battle fleet in 2052. Rather than being exterminated under a barrage of hell-burners, Earth joined their vast Empire. Swearing allegiance to our distant alien overlords wasn't the only requirement for survival. We also had to have something of value to trade, something that neighboring planets would pay their hard-earned credits to buy. As most of the local worlds were too civilized to have a proper army, the only valuable service Earth could provide came in the form of soldiers...someone had to do their dirty work for them, their fighting and dying.
I, James McGill, was born in 2099 on the fringe of the galaxy. When Hegemony Financial denied my loan applications, I was kicked out of the university and I turned to the stars. My first campaign involved the invasion of a mineral-rich planet called Cancri-9, better known as Steel World. The attack didn't go well, and now Earth has entered a grim struggle for survival. Humanity's mercenary legions go to war in Steel World, best-selling author B. V. Larson's latest science fiction novel.
B.V. Larson seems to be one of the more prolific and successful self-publishers carving out a niche in military SF. This first book in his "Undying Mercenaries" series shows exactly why self-publishing is suitable for some books — as a novel, it's wholly unoriginal and not written with a strong enough voice to set it apart from all the books it's imitating, but I've read a lot of trade-published science fiction that was no better. The similarities to Terms of Enlistment are so obvious as to make them almost different brands of the same product.
In this military space opera, Earth was forcibly inducted into a Galactic empire in which every planet must have something to trade. The only thing Earth had was its people — specifically, its soldiers. This is another book exercising the Humans Are Warriors trope. So young men and women (as is typical of modern military SF, this is another imagined future in which men and women fight side by side in undifferentiated roles) join Earth's Legions to go to distant, exotic planets, meet interesting aliens, and kill them.
The protagonist, a slacker named James McGill, is sitting around in his tiny shared apartment playing video games until his mother tells him the government dole has run out. This is his impetus to go join the Legions. He fails the test for the higher status, more glamorous Legions, because he's too much of an "independent thinker" (i.e., a wise-ass who sucks at impulse control or following orders), but just when he's about to give up, he finds himself recruited into Legion Varus, which has a reputation for doing a lot of hard, dirty, "real" fighting. With almost no training, McGill finds himself given a gun and sent to a planet occupied by dinosaur-like saurians, which Legion Varus has to fight in unending waves. The rest of the book consists of McGill repeatedly getting himself in trouble and navigating the petty politics of both the Legion and the Galactics, in between bloody battles in which half the time he and his buddies wind up dead.
Yes, dead. The ace in the hole for Earth's Legions is their "Revival Units." When a soldier dies, his backed-up memories are dumped into a newly-grown body. For McGill, this is disturbing and disorienting and quite upsetting the first couple of times it happens, so the author tries to emphasize that infinite respawning does not come without a cost, but McGill also comes to understand that some veterans have been killed and regrown over and over and over, for years, which certainly gives them a different take on life.
It also turns out that the Galactics monitor all mercenary battles and score them according to Byzantine (and heavily biased) rules. The real plot consists of McGill finding out how Legion Varus's battles on Steel World may determine the fate of the Legion, and of Earth itself.
So, very heavily reminiscent of a RTS game. Steel World has a lot of action and cleverly-deployed aliens and technology, and decent characterization. (I found McGill himself the most annoying - even after being killed a few times, he's still kind of a whiny, entitled punk.) Some plot points were a little implausible, and at times the characters' actions stretched credibility just to introduce artificial tension, but overall it was a fun, pleasant read to fill a few hours when you are in the mood for yet another Johnny Rico clone.
Verdict: Steel World is one of a flood of self-published military SF novels available on Amazon, but unlike most, it reads like something professionally written and edited, and it's entertaining. It's still a highly derivative "young man goes into space to blow up aliens and prove that Earthmen rule" story, with a few plot twists but not much depth, but if you like this genre, it's a perfectly good candidate, and I'd be willing to read more in the series.
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