SF Book Review – Part 40: Expeditionary Force and More

It’s been a while since once of these. This is partly due to covering some books in Tasting Notes style posts or Vintage SF Month posts, but mostly because I’ve been reading less SF. Or maybe not, but what I have been reading has been part of a single series (which I’ll cover below). Anywho, I thought it was time to catch up and clear the baffles before the Six Weeks of Halloween gets started in September.

Columbus Day, by Craig Alanson – Expeditionary Force Series – Aliens choose the thematically appropriate Columbus Day to invade. Sergeant Joe Bishop organizes a small counteroffensive, and eventually ends up joining with different aliens who come to Earth’s rescue. Now he’s headed offworld to fight the invaders. But is he fighting for the right side?

Expeditionary Force Book 1: Columbus Day

I’m eliding a lot of things because the plot here is almost besides the point. This is straight-down-the-middle military science fiction comfort food. The defining characteristics of the series don’t really take hold until about halfway through the first book, when (spoiler alert, I guess) Skippy the Magnificent arrives. Skippy is an ancient and powerful AI that decides to help out lowly monkeys humans in their quest to not be wiped out by various warring factions in the galaxy.

Whether or not the series will work for you depends greatly upon how much you like the bro-ey bickering between Skippy and Joe Bishop, dad jokes, military slang, and pew-pew style action, as well as the general problem solving patterns that represent the bulk of the series. Even if you do like those things (and I enjoy them well enough), the series gets extremely repetitive, and while Alanson never takes it easy on our protagonists and forces them to come up with workable solutions, they do sometimes rely a bit too heavily on Skippy’s almost magical powers. And there’s this whole thing where Skippy is a genius but can’t ever seem to think up the basic schemes that Bishop proposes. Skippy’s frustration at this sort of thing gets old fast, but the series eventually outgrows it as Skippy and Joe (and the rest of the crew) establish a more meaningful rapport.

There are fifteen books in the Expeditionary Force series (and a couple of spinoff books called Mavericks) and I’m about two-thirds of the way finished, so obviously this works for me. I won’t call it mindblowing and it’s not especially filled with the sense-of-wonder that populates the best SF, but it’s entertaining and fun and absolutely perfect audiobook fodder. It helps that the audiobook narrator, R.C. Bray, is excellent. What’s the audiobook equivalent of a page-turner? That’s what this series is.

Alanson does a good job exploring various dynamics of the universe he set up, from the differing alien factions to the technology and other worldbuilding, and as mentioned earlier, he never takes it easy on our protagonists, who always encounter problems on top of problems. It does get repetitive, and sometimes the story bogs down into minutiae of a specific operation that, in the grand scheme of things, probably isn’t that important. This leads to the books feeling a bit samey and repetitive (hence I’m reviewing the entire series here, not individual entries). Alanson’s good at that sort of problem solving stuff, and his strategic outlook on the galaxy’s various forces works. Interpersonal relationships are perhaps not as successful; the professional military stuff works very well, the more romantic stuff a bit less so. Pretty much par for the course there.

There’s some semblance of a larger background story surrounding Skippy’s past and the Elder race that supposedly “transcended” eons ago, but that stuff is super slowly explored (like, don’t get your hopes up, even when it seems like progress is being made). I’m assuming this stuff will come into play as the series comes to a close (though I’m guessing that Alanson could keep this sort of thing going indefinitely), which could be interesting. All in all, I’m enjoying the series. Your mileage may vary, depending on how much of Skippy and the treading-of-water inherent in these stories you can tolerate at any given time.

Paradox Bound, by Peter Clines – Eli has a few encounters with a mysterious woman who wears a tri-corn hat, drives a steampunk version of a Model-A Ford, and is being chased by… something. So Eli and the woman go on the road, but this is a road through time and history. So yeah, this is a sorta goofy Mystery Box style time travel story. It’s not exactly rigorous, but there’s some clever twists and turns and the villains are suitably creepy.

It’s perhaps not as good as 14 or The Fold, but Clines is good at turning pages (or the audio equivalent; this is another good audobook presentation) and has decent storytelling instincts. This isn’t breaking any new ground, but it’s fun and interesting and worth a look if you’re into American History or simple time travel stories with a hint of horror lurking in the background.

The Fountains of Paradise, by Arthur C. Clarke – An engineer seeks to build a space elevator, but runs into challenges ranging from the technical, to the geographic, to the political, to the religious. The concept of a space elevator had been around for a while, but Clarke was among the first to portray such a thing, and he does so in a fairly thorough fashion.

The potential sites for such a project are limited, and the most promising site is in a fictionalized version of Sri Lanka. As our engineer works through various obstacles, we also get a series of flashbacks to thousands of years earlier as a Sri Lankan king builds a palace (complete with a pleasure garden and functioning fountains) high on the mountain top. The parallels between the two projects are well established and provide some themetic heft and characterization that is atypical of Clarke’s oeuvre.

It’s a short novel that nevertheless covers a lot of ground, but still hews to a lot of Clarke’s common themes and subjects, particularly once you get towards the ending (which I will not spoil!) This won a Hugo award in 1980, and it’s easy to see why, even if it’s not Clarke’s most propulsive or exciting effort.

Slow Time Between the Stars, by John Scalzi – Short story about an AI sent out into space on a desperate mission to find a new home for humanity. Of course, space is big, so it takes a long time to traverse, and that gives the AI plenty of time to think about it’s place in the universe, what it was built to do, and more importantly, what it should do. There’s a few nuggets of a good idea here, and this functions just fine as a short story, but it’s not breaking new ground and it comes off as somewhat preachy and condescending on Scalzi’s part. Still, he’s a good writer and this is a snappy little story with some interesting notions.

I’m finishing off some mystery/crime books I’ve been exploring of late, and then I have several horror books I’m looking forward to during the Six Weeks of Halloween, but I’ve got a few SF books on tap for later in the year.

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