Taliban – Ahmed Rashid

Non-fiction about the history and present of Afghanistan. Written before 9/11, it gives a clear picture of why events turned out the way it did. At times heavy and gloomy reading, it is nevertheless very interesting. The author’s conclusions may be a biased, but it is hard to argue the fact that foreign influence (or lack of it) in Afghanistan served the purposes of the emerging Taliban regime. One could almost see this as a sort of manual in how not to perform foreign policy.

The Hot Gate – John Ringo

The third book in the Troy Rising series picks up where Citadel left off. Dana Parker is transferred to the new Thermopylae station in order to stiffen up a screwed up squadron of Myrmidon assault shuttles mostly staffed by Latin American personnel. To say there is a culture clash is an understatement. Later, of course, the fecal matter hits the rotary air impeller in a big way as the Rangora decide it is time to deal with those pesky Terrans once and for all.

The cultural issues between Anglos and South Americans are dealt with humorously but with very serious undertones. Mr. Ringo has obviously spent a lot of time thinking about this. While it would be easy to think that he is just an American bashing what he perceives as an inferior culture, he is undeniable right about many aspects. For example the contrast between “honor” and “duty”, as well as the problems with a class society.

The way in which things go seriously pear-shaped at the end is vintage Ringo. Massive action. Massive losses. Heroics with that little bit of Ringo humor that just makes it so readable.

Engineer’s Mate Second Class Dana Parker (hang on, you say, wasn’t she a Coxswain’s Mate in the previous book?) is a perfect protagonist for this kind of book. A true hero.

This may be my favorite Ringo ever. The only niggling criticism is the lack of a dramatis personae. This is not much of a problem in the beginning, but lots of characters are suddenly introduced during the final action, leaving me occasionally confused as to who was who.

The Posleen War Series – John Ringo

Alien invasion stories have been done before, but to my knowledge never quite with this much desperation, lack of hope, or heroism on the part of the defenders. This is rich military SF with a keen eye for the strategic dimension and human psychology as well as kick-ass fun. The “original” series consists of the following.

  • A Hymn Before Battle
  • Gust Front
  • When the Devil Dances
  • Hell’s Faire

The first novel is a sort of “eve of the war” story. I was put off by the cover for quite a while but eventually decided to give it a shot. Good thing too. Aliens have contacted Earth and told them of an ongoing war, and that the Posleen, a very powerful race with a behavior like a cannibalistic Mongol horde, is only five years out from Earth. The Galactics will help, if humans help them fight. The other races are pacifistic in the extreme. There is action (of course) in the form of skirmishes and the defence of an allied planet, and we are introduced to Mike O’Neal, later leader of an elite Armed Combat Suit unit and the main hero of the story.

The second novel covers the assault on Earth. As before, Ringo has a knack for describing the political and strategic dimensions, and is not afraid of throwing disastrous screwups, unexpected developments and plain old bad luck into the mix. The United States is hunkering down, but the question is: Will the line hold for the defenders to marshal their forces?

The third novel of the series is a middle book to bridge the gap between the first Posleen assault on Earth (covered in “Gust Front”) and the climactic conclusion to the war (covered in “Hell’s Faire”). Characters are developed and the stage is set for a whopping showdown. The action scenes are great, as in all Ringo’s work, and the humor just keeps getting better. It’s quite ironic that a story about alien invasion and massive destruction, suffering and pain can make me laugh out loud so much. Ringo is good at capturing the inner essence of characters. This three-dimensionality is welcome, and few authors pull it off so well. He is also very good at developing his characters as they go through events in their lives. Masterful.

The fourth novel picks up exactly where When the Devil Dances left off. In the afterword, Ringo says that the last two should only have been one, but 9/11 gave him serious writer’s block and plans had to change. He even suggests gluing them together. The conclusion is very exciting and satisfying. While many loose ends are tied up, other fundamental questions about the various aliens, which were only hinted at in the earlier books, are now dredged up and given new focus. Why didn’t the Galactics warn Earth earlier? Why did they give intelligence to the Posleen? To answer these questions the Universe is already much expanded, with several more novels written solo and in collaboration.

Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Chasm City – Alastair Reynolds

Scary in it’s placing of humanity firmly at the bottom of the Universe’s pecking order, this series of books contains some pretty big concepts. Worth reading just for the descriptions of cultures and aliens. Watch out though, Reynolds is not afraid of making the Universe a scary place. I refused to read Redemption Ark close to bedtime. I would just lay awake and shiver at the thought of how huge the universe is, and how short-lived and fragile we are.

  • Revelation Space – Cool, pure SF. The last few chapters give an inkling of what is to come in future installments, but the story also stands well by itself.
  • Redemption Ark – The sequel to Revelation Space, in which many questions are, err, resolved, or then again maybe not. Several hundred years in the future, the Inhibitors are back after eons, Their objective seems to be to eradicate sentient life. Scary scary scary.
  • Chasm City – The schizo prequel to Revelation Space, which scales back quite a bit from the epic back story and gives up a very convoluted plot of a man and his quest for identity. Good reading but does lose itself a little in the identity crisis of a very screwed up psyche.

Citadel – John Ringo

The sequel to Live Free or Die continues more or less where the previous book leaves off. Much of it deals with the continuing construction of the Troy battlestation and its first consort. As is typical with Ringo second books in series, the “three stories combined” model of the first book is abandoned and new main characters are introduced, in this case a Navy assault shuttle pilot and a civilian “space welder”. This being Ringo, there is no shortage of battle scenes in the last third of the book.

Even more than usual, Mr. Ringo has managed to produce a real page-turner. The logistics of designing and constructing the defenses of The Solar System are great reading since it is all interspersed with trademark Ringo humor, well written characters, fun character interactions and lots of just plain cool stuff. I don’t know where the guy gets his ideas but he certainly has never been timid. Arthur C. Clarke, a master of massively huge stuff, would have been humbled. While I mostly “got it”, a schematic or two would have been nice, namely the Troy and a Myrmidon shuttle. Also, while I am up on quite a few military acronyms, a list or at least a spelled out version the first time one is mentioned would have been nice. All in all, another page turner from Ringo. Can’t wait for the next book, “The Hot Gate”.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void – Mary Roach

In this curious non-fiction volume, Mary Roach explores an aspect of space travel that is normally glossed over: the human inside the machine. She starts by explaining why engineers find humans the trickiest part of their spaceships, and goes on from there through impact experiments on cadavers, body odor research (really!), what happens to humans if they lie still for weeks on end, the horrors of space food, the even greater horrors of going to the potty in space and various other subjects.

If this sounds boring, think again. Not only is the subject matter surprising and fascinating, but Ms. Roach’s writing is infused with an extremely entertaining dry wit. Throughout her research and her many interviews with scientists, astronauts and even interns involved in space travel and its accessory activities, she seems to find the humor in every situation. To be fair, it is hard not to see the humor but she describes it so well. A couple of selected gems:

“Safeguarding a human for a multiaxis crash is not all that different from packing a vase for shipping. Since you don’t know which side the UPS guy’s going to drop it on, you need to stabilize it all around.”

“The staff played hot potato with my call until someone could locate the Person in Charge of Lying to the Press. The PCLP said that the room that houses the base archives is locked. And that only the curator would have a key. And that Holloman currently has no curator. Evidently the new curator’s first task would be to find a way to open the archives.”

I recommend this book even if you are not particularly interested in the space program. It is a great read about what it really takes to put people in space.

Yellow Eyes – Tom Kratman & John Ringo

Even more Ringo! For some reason I had been avoiding this Posleen series side story. That came back to bite me as I launched into the follow-up Hedren series and some of the characters popped up.

The story is set before and during the Posleen invasion of Earth, but deals specifically with events in Panama. Realizing that the Panama Canal is strategically important, the US sends military and material aid to bolster the defenses, including three warships. Through a complex series of events, one of the ships, the USS Des Moines, gains sentience. The story follows the defense of Panama, both from the perspective of the Posleen-Human conflict, and from the perspective of the struggle between corrupt officials and honorable ones. The Darhel, overlords of the Galactic Federation, want the humans to win, but only just, so that human civilization is shattered and cannot be a threat to them.

The Panama aspects are very interesting, and it shows that both authors have been posted there during their military careers. The story itself is quite good, with predictably excellent battle scenes. It is a worthy addition to the Posleen series, but should probably not be read as a standalone.

Live Free or Die – John Ringo

More Ringo? Why yes. You can never have enough Ringo. Live Free or Die is the start of a new series (that man is a total workaholic) called “Troy Rising“. Aliens pop up, drop a stargate (well, it is) in space, and leave. A while later, another race pops up and demands tribute in the form of most of Earth’s more valuable metals. Humanity has no choice but to comply. Through a combination of luck and deviousness, Tyler Vernon, an IT guy reduced to doing odd jobs, manages to find something that another race of aliens actually wants to buy. In the process he becomes the richest man in the world. And so starts humanity’s long road towards independence.

Like several other of Ringo’s first novels in a series, this one has three “episodes”. I don’t know why he does this but it works. What I particularly like about this novel is how humanity is thrown in at the deep end of a very deep pool without the least knowledge of how to swim. The Horvath, basically the local bullies, come in and just say “give”. It is a refreshing change from the many first contact scenarios where human technology is more or less equal to that of the aliens.

As usual with Ringo, this is an intelligent page turner with lots of cool action. The only part that became slightly confusing was the whole “many mirrors” bit. Would a schematic or two have killed you, Mr. Ringo?

The next book in the series is Citadel.

The Last Centurion – John Ringo

This near future novel starts with a major plague that wipes out over half the planet’s population. Then there’s global cooling as the Earth enters a mini ice age. Our hero Bandit Six, who tells the story from a first person perspective, is a US Army Captain with a farming background. He becomes stuck in Iran (invaded by the US before the story started) with one company of infantry guarding an enormous amount of supplies left behind as US forces pull out. Meanwhile, the US is crumbling due to the global disasters and inept political leadership. Bandit Six has to pull of a heroic extraction of his men to get back to civilization, but he becomes more than that. A symbol of hope in a “time of suckage”.

Right up front, I should tell you that this novel is right-wing, very pro-America, racist (but only if you misinterpret it), anti-liberal, pro-military and littered with the f-word. Bandit Six tells the story in the first person, using a blog style tone. In your face doesn’t even begin to cover it. Bandit Six is old school conservative (not the same as “modern Republican”). He truly believes in good old Americans and good old American know how and perseverance. He believes that people should be treated like adults and not be coddled. Liberals, the press and  “tofu-eaters” (organic food eaters who don’t want to know where their food comes from) are roundly criticized for being short sighted and just plain stupid. Now, I may not be as right wing as Bandit Six, but I have a hard time disagreeing with most of what he says. His theses are well argued. He is right about a lot of things. Ringo does his usual great job of using dry humor to tell a story. And it is a very good story. Gripping, exciting, humorous despite the enormous tragedy and suffering suffusing it. The Centurion metaphor, setting America as the new Rome, a beacon of civilization in a barbarian world, with the military defending it, is well done. Even if you don’t agree with the book’s views, do read it. The salient points are better argued than what you will hear on the conservative news or by conservative politicians. That alone makes it worth it.

Much of the story is based on Xenophon’s account of the “Ten Thousand” and their march back to Greece in 401-399 BC.

Eye of the Storm – John Ringo

After having spent quite some time on side stories, the “Legacy of the Aldenata/Posleen” universe finally gets back to the central core of the story, if you will. Peace is at hand, but there is trouble as the Darhel keep trying to screw humanity over in a sort of grand plan for their own domination of all races. Pretty soon, all that falls by the wayside as a new threat is looming. The Darhel now have to come to terms with the fact they need those pesky humans. However, unlike during the Posleen War, humanity is well aware of what is going on, and can dictate terms. Mike O’Neal is brought back from disgrace (he was framed) to lead.

One thing I loved about this novel was how many of the main protagonists from both the central Posleen War stories and the side stories were brought together. It was like a Greatest Hits album with only cool songs. The reunion of Cally and Mike O’Neal, with the latter being unaware that his daughter was even alive, was entertaining as hell. And any excuse to bring back the SS troops from “Watch on the Rhine” is a good one. Like the early books in the Posleen War series, this one focuses on preparation, leaving a cliffhanger as the main action finally begin. Looking forward to future installments.