Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Columbus Day, by Craig Alanson

A rag-tag international band of soldiers and an AI named Skippy save the world from aliens.

Columbus Day

2016, 273 pages

We were fighting on the wrong side of a war we couldn't win. And that was the good news.

The Ruhar hit us on Columbus Day. There we were, innocently drifting along the cosmos on our little blue marble, like the Native Americans in 1492. Over the horizon came ships of a technologically advanced, aggressive culture, and BAM! There went the good old days, when humans got killed only by each other. So, Columbus Day. It fits.

When the morning sky twinkled again, this time with Kristang starships jumping in to hammer the Ruhar, we thought we were saved. The UN Expeditionary Force hitched a ride on Kristang ships to fight the Ruhar wherever our new allies thought we could be useful. So, I went from fighting with the US Army in Nigeria to fighting in space. It was lies, all of it. We shouldn't even be fighting the Ruhar; they aren't our enemy. Our allies are.

I'd better start at the beginning.

Craig Alanson steals a page from H.G. Wells with the title of his debut novel. The War of the Worlds is commonly understood to have been a metaphor for European colonialism, in which the Martians did to the British what the British had done to less advanced cultures. So Columbus Day gets its name because that's the day that aliens invade Earth, but also, Earth finds out what it's like to be colonized by occupiers who then use you as proxy soldiers in a war between superpowers that you never cared about.

This self-published series is one of an endless parade of similar series being promoted on Amazon and Audible — military SF about a Joe Everyman who has to soldier up and fight aliens for Earth. If this sounds a lot like Marko Kloos's Frontlines series, it's a lot like Marko Kloos's Frontlines series.

Columbus Day is well-written. The characters are fairly standard, the aliens equally so, the plot pretty much what it says on the cover. But I liked it. It's like a cheeseburger. (One of the running jokes in this book is how much the main character, Sergeant Joe Bishop, misses cheeseburgers.) You don't expect a cheeseburger to deliver an innovative new taste. You aren't expecting a culinary experience that transcends previous cheeseburgers. But a decent cheeseburger is tasty, and a good cheeseburger can be really, really good, and this is a good cheeseburger.

The plot: aliens invade Earth. Joe Bishop is a US Army sergeant at home on leave. By chance, he leads his hometown homies in one of the only successful human military operations in the invasion, and captures an alien. Then another alien races arrives, liberates Earth from its invaders, and grateful humans sign up to fight for their new benefactors against the evil aliens who invaded them.

The Ruhar (or "Hamsters," because they look like six-foot hamsters, when they aren't in powered armor) are the aliens who invaded. The Kristang (or "lizards," because they look like, well, humanoid lizards) are humanity's new allies. Sgt. Bishop arrives with an international team on a former Ruhar colony world. Apparently the Kristang just captured it, and per some treaty (the war has been going on for a long time), the Ruhar are being allowed to evacuate on a months-long timetable. Bishop and his people will be serving garrison duty.

At this point, Bishop and the rest of the humans begin to learn that everything they thought they knew was a lie. Columbus Day has shades of David Brin's Uplift series (which is a very good thing, because Uplift is one of my favorite SF series ever). The Kristang and the Ruhar are both "client" races of more advanced patrons, and their patrons in turn have even more advanced patrons. Almost everyone in the war is just a proxy for a more advanced civilization. Humans are just a bunch of barely-civilized monkeys whose planet happened to be inconveniently in a strategic location at a critical time, and the Ruhar invaded Earth, not because they wanted it, but to deny it to the Kristang. And it turns out, the Ruhar are actually fairly civilized, while the Kristang don't take long to set humans straight on what the "patron-client" relationship means.

But this isn't just a SF military war novel. Bishop, after several reversals of fortune which leave him as a prisoner first of the Kristang and then of the Ruhar, discovers an advanced alien artifact which is actually an AI built by the long-gone "Elder Race." It's borderline omnipotent, occasionally absent-minded, regards humans as barely paramecium-level intelligences, and also really, really lonely. And in interacting with Joe, it absorbs the sum total of late 20th and early 21st century Earth pop culture and soon becomes the most smart-ass, annoying super-powered alien AI you've ever met.

Skippy is fun, and so is this book. Joe and a crew of Earthlings end up capturing a middle-tier alien race's starcruiser, with the help of Skippy, and then go back to Earth to liberate it from the Kristang.

Now, looking ahead, I realize that there are so far nine books in this series, and apparently the author plans a total of fourteen (!!!). Unfortunately, my experience with series like these is that if they go on for that many books, the author starts milking it (I'm looking at you, Marko Kloos!), with little forward progress in the plot. A neverending war may be realistic, but is not very satisfying as a story. So I have reservations, but I've definitely put the next few books on my wish list to be indulged in soon.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, craig alanson, reviews, science fiction

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