I haven’t, lately, been much into writing but since I have a few minutes I thought I would ramble a bit about some reading I’ve been doing lately. On a whim I picked up a paperback that has been on my bookshelf a while (an old friend already well read) and since have read through most of its series brethren. This book was Bolos Bk 1: Honor of the Regiment, a collection of short stories set in a universe created by Keith Laumer that features huge self-aware tanks known as Bolos.
It may be kind of a small thing but the very first time that I read these books the aspect that probably hooked me was the name for a Bolo’s main offensive weapon, a kind of plasma cannon that in the books measures its destructive output in megatons-per-second; the Hellbore. The picture above, a Mk XX Bolo (the first marks that were considered to be fully self-aware), features two Hellbore cannons as well as a suite of point defense and anti-personnel turrets (known as Infinite Repeaters), a bank of mortars, and magazine fed VLS missile cells behind an armored hull strong enough to resist the fire of virtually anything except for another Bolo’s Hellbore. Furthermore, this arsenal is powered by a pair of fusion reactors, and rolling on multiple, independent, track systems capable of cruising at 55mph and spiriting at 75 mph. It is a fourteen thousand ton juggernaut and later marks just get bigger, smarter, and more powerful.
Now, there is something to be said for the utility of tanks this size, especially in the current era of warfare where the tank seems to be falling by the wayside (the earliest Mk. I Bolo was essentially a late-model variant of the Abrams tank) but I always saw it in the context of where the Bolos fought, which is mostly not on Earth. No, Bolos are the human’s sword and shield on battlefields among the stars, against aliens who see us as prey, wish to take our resources, or stand in our way.
After all is said and done the very coolest thing about the Bolo universe is that most of the books are collections of short stories written by a whole host of sci-fi authors. While this does lead to a bit of confusion at times as the different authors sometimes are inconsistent in the capabilities of the Bolos themselves, it leads to many voices exploring different aspects of the universe and as a reader I love that.
by Greg Rucka
I have been a fan of Greg Rucka since picking up the first Atticus Kodiak novel Keeper on a whim. I have followed him since then and the guy is honestly a really good writer. Over the years he has mastered what really makes action novels work, pacing and the ability to describe actions that happen all at once in a way that the reader can follow along and not get confused.
Alpha starts a new venture for Rucka, a new world and a new cast of characters. In the world of Alpha the war on terror is ongoing and there are dangerous men lurking in the background eager to exploit paranoia and catastrophe for their own financial gain. Standing against these villains, and also the ideologues who would like nothing better than to wipe the Great Satan off the map, is Delta Force operator Jad Bell. Bell, whose callsign is Warlock, leads an elite group of three other Delta operatives with equally colorful monikers like Chaindragger, Bonebreaker and… Cardboard. Okay, I don’t get the last one but I’m sure there is some in-world story that goes along with that nickname, but then again I really don’t understand why the novel is called Alpha either. I don’t even remember the word Alpha being anywhere in the book. Maybe the next book will be Beta or Bravo or something, but I digress. This group seems to be outside the normal military chain of command and apparently reports directly to the President.
In Alpha, Bell must face a nightmare scenario that I’m sure keeps plenty of people up at night in the real world. Intelligence has determined that there is a possible terrorist attack being readied against a theme park in the United States (duh!) but they don’t know when or where. To keep tabs on the goings-on at the threatened parks, agents are placed undercover among their staff. When one of those agents is murdered at the Disney-esque Wilsonville mega-park, Jad Bell is sent in as a park security supervisor in order to be point-man. What follows is a run and gun adventure that is worth a mega-bowl of popcorn.
I enjoyed Alpha. It is the kind of novel that scratches that itch you get for a good thriller that has plenty of guns blazing. Like I said, the pacing is great and the action has just the right balance of technical savvy to make it believable and understandable. I also liked the villain (the only person I can think of that might be referred to as Alpha), his motivations and actions bring an interesting twist the usual psychotic super-villain trope. In all he is very human. My only real complaint is that Alpha feels like the third book of a series rather than the debut. I feel like a lot of back story and characterization is somehow missing (like why is his callsign Cardboard?). Bell also seems to be in the twilight of his career and we hear he has a lot of scars, but we have never seen him earn them. Except for a “badass-credential” scene at the beginning of the book we just have to take it on faith. I also think it was kind of a cheap coincidence that some of the people taken hostage in the attack would have such close ties to the Hero (especially among the thousands and thousands in the park when the attack goes down). It is kind of like wondering how Lois Lane always seems to be the one trapped in the mine/lab/stadium/office building/restaurant/bank that is about to be robbed/blown up/attacked by aliens/whatever. It’s a quibble but I think the action would have happened just as fast and hard without it. I’m still looking forward to the next book.
And so begins the Ray Cruz era of Stephen Hunter’s excellent sniper thrillers.
Now, I don’t know if Stephen Hunter ever reads the reviews for his books, much less any reviews that I might have put together, but I thought this coincidence was pretty cool
“Ray Cruz really doesn’t have all that very much screen time in Dead Zero, but my read on him is that he is much more like Bob Lee’s father Earl Swagger. He is a powerful warrior who makes sacrifices for honor, duty and justice. In a sense, Earl and Ray are like Hercules and Hector to Bob Lee’s Achilles. Each of them are powerful warriors and heroes in their own right, but Earl and Ray do violence to serve a greater purpose, while Bob Lee is a killer because killing is what he is best at.”
In any case the torch has officially been passed to Ray Cruz. Bob Lee only appears in this novel in spirit.
Compared to some other Hunter novels Soft Target is fairly straightforward. In fact, to me it reads more like Mr. Hunter started out writing a character development story that put Ray in a dangerous situation to explore how the character would think and act. Lucky for us he got carried away and we ended up with a new book for the shelf.
There is some good action here. Everything revolves around a terrorist takeover of a mall at the height of the Christmas shopping season, a situation that personally fills me with dread because it is so plausible. While gunmen roam we get to meet Ray’s girlfriend, if briefly. We get to see his half sister Nikki in action as a hot-shot news reporter. We also get to meet State Police Commandant Douglas Obobo who takes a position of empathy, understanding and reconciliation in his negotiations with the gunmen who have taken over the mega-mall based on the Mall of America (Mr. Hunter, your politics are showing and I bet we get to see him in later books).
I liked Soft Target. I’ll admit it probably wasn’t the greatest book Hunter has ever written but they can’t all be the best. It was a good read though and I enjoyed it. If anything I guess it goes to show that those Swaggers do tend to be in the bad place at the right time. Or I guess the wrong time if you happen to be the bad guys. Dead bodies of people with bad intentions do tend to turn up fairly often in those circumstances.
Troy Rising: Book 2
by John Ringo
Sometimes you just need some hard-core science fiction. Nothing quite scratches that action itch like plucky space marines killing lizard-like or squid-like aliens in droves.
As is pretty typical for humanity in science fiction stories, we Earthlings were discovered by aliens that treated us very badly. Our capitols were bombed from orbit. A vicious virus was released among the population. Humanity eventually fought back, harnessing the power of our sun to throw off the yoke of our overlord race, the Horvath. But that didn’t happen in this book, it happened in the previous novel in the series, Live Free or Die, which I highly recommend reading.
This novel is Citadel, the second novel of the series. The eponymous citadel is the Troy, a space station guarding the hypergate entrance to the Earth system. The Troy is an asteroid that was melted and then expanded like a giant metal balloon to become an orbital fortress with nickel/iron walls a kilometer and a half thick and the capability of simultaneously launching more missiles than an invasion fleet can carry, as well as holding a small fleet inside its walls and being the targeting focus for the solar mining system that measures its power in the hundreds of petawatts (that’s 10 with 15 zeros behind it).
Can you say Death Star?
As fearsome as it appears the Troy is the first, and only, line of defense for the Earth, and the enemy is at the gates. That enemy is the Rangora and they are poised to launch an invasion of the Glatun, the only alien race that has been friendly to the Earth. The Glatun are an old and very advanced race that historically has helped the races around them, including the Horvath and Rangora, rise and prosper so that they may become better trading partners. Now their civilization is on the decline and though they have a capable navy, the Rangora have the most powerful military in the region, and securing the Earth system will undoubtedly be part of their attack plan. The partially completed Troy and its new sibling station the Thermopylae must stand against fleets of the most powerful warships ever created, Rangora Assault Vectors.
As I’ve said before, science fiction like this is pure brain candy. Too much of it will rot your mind but it sure does taste good. Just call John Ringo the candy man (if admittedly a dark and kind of twisted sort of candy man). Hopefully, Citadel will tide me over until the next installment of the Troy Rising series, The Hot Gates.
Bob Lee Swagger is back and he is more ornery and crusty than ever. At this point in his long career of gunfights and scary situations, Bob Lee barely has the ability to walk around. That in mind, I had two expectations for this book. The first was that Bob Lee would finally have a novel where he didn’t actually kill anybody. Hard to believe, I know, but guess what; he actually didn’t! The second expectation was that we, the readers, would be introduced to a character who could be Bob Lee’s successor in violence and mayhem (As Nick Memphis’ protegé Jean “Starling” Chandler was introduced in the previous novel). Hey, I got that one right too and I didn’t even have to read the synopsis on the dust cover.
The new character Dead Zero introduces is Gunnery Sargeant Ray Cruz, a Marine sniper serving in Afghanistan who is the modern-day equivalent of the Vietnam-era Swagger. Dead Zero is the story of Cruz’s quest for justice after being ambushed during a mission to eliminate an Afghan warlord known as “The Beheader.” His spotter is killed and he is presumed dead. A year later, after “The Beheader” turns his coat and starts working with the U. S., Cruz resurfaces and lets his superiors know he is still very much alive and intends to continue his mission. He crosses paths with Swagger when Bob Lee is brought in to stop him. Of course, it is never that simple but without giving anything else away it is a good read with an exciting plot. Really, even if the whole point of Dead Zero is to introduce Cruz, I’m just fine with that.
Bob Lee Swagger is one of my favorite fictional characters. He is carries a darkness within him that is typically unleashed in the company of gunfire and explosions. Bob Lee has a moral ambiguity like that of the black-hatted gunfighters
like Chris Adams in The Magnificent Seven such as the Man with no Name and the Preacher from Pale Rider. (Editor’s Note: On further reflection this is a much more apt comparison) He is a hero, yes, but also a killer without remorse who ignores the fine line between law and outlaw. Ray Cruz really doesn’t have all that very much screen time in Dead Zero, but my read on him is that he is much more like Bob Lee’s father Earl Swagger. He is a powerful warrior who makes sacrifices for honor, duty and justice. In a sense, Earl and Ray are like Hercules and Hector to Bob Lee’s Achilles. Each of them are powerful warriors and heroes in their own right, but Earl and Ray do violence to serve a greater purpose, while Bob Lee is a killer because killing is what he is best at.
by David Weber
Much like one of David Weber’s previous novels, The Excalibur Alternative, humanity is discovered by a galactic civilization and treated very, very badly. In that novel a small force of English longbowmen and men-at-arms on their way to fight in France during the Hundred Years War are abducted by highly advanced aliens and used as slave soldiers on planets where it isn’t legal for them to employ high-tech weaponry.
Out of the Dark also starts at the battle of Agincourt as seen from the perspective of a survey mission from a technologically advanced galactic civilization, the Galactic Hegemony. The members of the survey crew, a race evolved from herd animal herbivores, are horrified by the ferocity and brutality of the “humans” that inhabit planet KU-197-20. The next aliens to visit Earth are the Shongairi.
The Shongairi are not herbivores. The are, in fact, the only race of carnivores in the Galactic Hegemony. They are pack hunters and see themselves as true predators. Frankly, the Shongairi frighten the other members of the Hegemony. They are expansionist and militant. To appease them, the Hegemony allows the Shongairi to conquer and occupy planets with primitive inhabitants. Apparently the Shongairi have done this many times before and they have gotten very good at it. Soon the Shongairi arrive at Earth with a colonization fleet. What they were expecting were humans at approximately an early 1600’s level of technology, but what they find is 21st century Earth. Apparently, our level of technological advancement is off the chart compared to anything else the Hegemony has experienced. Technically, by Hegemony standards, Earth has reached a high enough level of technology where it should be protected until it discovers hyperspace capability and is offered membership in the Hegemony. The Shongairi decide to ignore that and invade anyway as they had hoped to use humans as a client race, turning our ferocity toward their own ends as cannon fodder, now they see as even more valuable our innovative ability and hope to harness that as well. They have never invaded a planet with our level of technology before, but seeing as we are still primitives compared to them (and that they have the forces necessary to conquer two more planets after ours on hand) they decide to go ahead and attack.
I won’t go into the details of the invasion except to say that hubris is the word of the day for the invaders. The Shongairi are able to, in most ways, completely destroy any form of organized resistance. Yes, the Shongairi lose an entire army’s worth of soldiers and equipment when a quartet of F-22s get the drop on a huge formation of massive, unarmed alien landing craft. Yes, a battalion of U.S. armor and mechanized infantry savages an entire brigade of Shongairi ground forces. Yes, guerilla fighters are able to inflict horribly costly ambushes time and again. However, the Shongairi still hold the orbitals and continuously drop Kinetic Energy Weapons (KEWs, essentially rocks) on any population center near these points of resistance. The Shongairi, for the most part aren’t winning, but in spite of the pain inflicted by casualties and destroyed equipment, they also aren’t really losing.
On the ground, humans are tactically much more proficient than the Shongairi. Our technology doesn’t match theirs, but there is a huge asymmetry between our man-portable systems, and the sort of bows-and-arrows-type resistance the existing Shongairi equipment is designed to deal with. One of the characters even makes the remark that at some point humans are going to be too much trouble and expense to deal with and the Shongairi will just get rid of the lot of us and keep the planet.
Then the inevitable plot-twist (biggest spoilers are after this point).
One of the viewpoint characters is a Marine NCO who was on a military flight into Italy before the initial Shongairi bombardment that destroyed most military bases and major population centers around the world. They fly north to get out of danger and eventually crash-land in Serbia and make their way into Romania where they meet another group of fighters protecting some isolated villages. The leader of this group turns out to be a bit more than he seems. In fact, after the Shongairi eventually invade and destroy those villages he goes a little nuts, you see, he spent a very, very, long time trying to forget the blood lust that made him famous. Oh yes, his real name is Vlad Dracul and he is a vampire, and the Shongairi have really, really pissed him off.
In this way, the name Out of the Dark has a double meaning. First, the alien invasion from the darkness of deep space, but also the counter-strike from the darkness of human myth and legend. Dracula, using his supernatural abilities and recruiting others to form a small army of vampires, begin to destroy Shongairi bases one after another. They even ride shuttles up to the orbiting Shongairi ships and take them over. In the end, humanity is left with Shongairi orbital factories capable of producing a Hegemony level industrial base, Dreadnought class starships capable of turning a planet to rubble, neural-education devices containing all existing Hegemony science and technology information, and a really bad attitude toward the galactic civilization that hung a big target on their home planet.
I expect, like The Excalibur Alternative, Out of the Dark will be a one book stand-alone, but I kind of wish it wasn’t. Aliens and spaceships and vampires, oh my!