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Expeditionary Force Book Review

Quick Summary of Expeditionary Force

On Columbus Day, an alien race named the Ruhar struck Earth. But for some inexplicable reason, they didn’t just rain fire from orbit. Troops actually landed. One transport touched down in a Maine, United States town where Army sergeant Joe Bishop happened to be visiting on leave. Wanting to do the right thing, Bishop realized they were hopelessly outgunned. So, he decided capturing one of the aliens might help the military learn their weaknesses. Imagine his surprise when, armed with only a few hunting weapons an an ice cream truck, they sprang their trap — and learned the Ruhar looked like giant hamsters!

The Ruhar soon left, but nothing humans had done drove them off. Starships representing the Kristang, a lizard-like race, arrived and pummeled their ancient enemy. Earth’s power grid and manufacturing infrastructure in shambles, Bishop returned to the army, where he soon shipped out to help fight the Kristang’s wars as part of the United Nations Expeditionary Force. He soon learned that things were anything but peaceful among the stars.

Information about the Expeditionary Force Series

As of this writing, there are eleven books that make up the Expeditionary Force Series.

Here are their full titles of the books currently available:

What I Liked about Expeditionary Force

IMPORTANT: From this point forward, there could be spoilers!

Setting the Context for My Reaction to Expeditionary Force

In ancient days, back when dinosaurs roam the Earth and I suffered through high school (in the 1980s), I pretended to write science fiction. I approached my craft with all of the honesty and realism I could, which means I copied a lot of what I saw in Star Trek and read in Dune. Okay, “copied” is uncharitable. I honestly looked to those works as inspiration, and I tried to bring my own voice to my fiction.

Remember I said I tried to be honest? I attempted to write a novel about Earth encountering a hopelessly advanced civilization. This was before movies like Independence Day. I was a pantser at the time, so I had no idea where the story would go.

Well, I’ll tell you where it went. Straight into a brick wall. No matter how I figured it, humans faced with hyper advanced technology were simply monkeys in a data center. My characters could see blinky lights, but they couldn’t do anything with them. Even the most basic alien security completely defeated our most brilliant scientists and engineers.

In the end, I had to give up. Without unrealistic Plot Armor, primitive humans were helpless. Movies like Independence Day just confirmed my bias. Sorry, but a Mac laptop’s asynchronous modem ain’t gonna do crap against an alien starship. Hell, the modems of the time could barely connect to CompuServe reliably!

Craig Alanson Creatively Solved the Problem!

This article at Publisher’s Weekly mentions Craig Alanson’s view of humanity’s chances against an advanced alien race. Which is to say: Zero. That acceptance and realization sits at the heart of why I’ve enjoyed Expeditionary Force so much. In Alanson’s view, how do humans prevail against such advanced races? Simple: They don’t. They don’t because they can’t.

Remember: There are spoilers here!

Sergeant Joe Bishop ends up with a multi-national human force under the command of the Kristang. Their first assignment is to manage the transition of the Ruhar population from a planet that they just recently relinquished to the Kristang. During the operation, Bishop struck up a relationship with a local Ruhar planetary official, and she began to fill him in on the complex political situation in the known galaxy. The short version? The Kristang were not Earth’s saviors. The Ruhar had struck simply to deny the Kristang a viable base of operations. Even now, while Bishop and other humans fought for the Kristang, the Kristang were enslaving Earth.

One thing led to another, and Bishop ended up in Ruhar custody. There, he discovered a shiny beer can-like object. Sitting on a shelf, discarded because it appeared inert, it spoke to Bishop. It was an advanced alien AI — advanced even compared to the Ruhar, Kristang, or any other living species in the galaxy. And guess why it could talk to Bishop?

It’s programming prevented it from interacting with advanced species so it couldn’t alter the balance of power. It could talk to Bishop precisely because humans were primitive and completely helpless.

Realistic Action

Bishop is a bit of a smart-ass. The shiny beer can tried to be all awe-inspiring and stuff, but Bishop wasn’t impressed. From his perspective, the beer can was just sitting on a shelf. How almighty could it be if it couldn’t extract itself from a shelf? So in response to its grandiose claims, Bishop gave it a name he thought appropriate. He named the beer can Skippy.

Skippy. The advanced alien AI shiny beer can. I’ll be honest. The ridiculousness of the situation nearly made me reconsider how much I had enjoyed the book to that point. But the more Bishop interacted with Skippy, the more I liked it.

Bishop couldn’t unlock even an alien office door. But Skippy could. Skippy could also hack his way into any Ruhar or Kristang computer, which meant now Bishop had access to drop ships even star ships. If he could muster enough human troops to take them.

So that started their relationship. Skippy gave Bishop a way to actually use the advanced alien technologies against their makers. Bishop gave Skippy mobility. So, two problems solved!

Dramatic and Hilarious at the Right Times

There’s a lot of exciting action and intense drama in this series. Each book builds on the previous. Decisions have consequences. I’m up to book 10 right now, and the wear and tear on the main characters is just a joy to behold. Um, let me quantify that. I don’t take joy in the pain and suffering Bishop and the other characters have endured. But I do experience something like euphoria that the narrative shows real character development. What they’ve gone though would leave any human in need of therapy. In that respect, the book has absolutely kept me invested. Not even once, not even when Bishop met Skippy, has the narrative taken a direction that kicked me out of my suspension of disbelief.

The comedy that often comes with Skippy’s utter arrogance and Bishop’s lowly “monkey brain” lightens the mood. Skippy is so advanced he considered our who race to be nothing more than “screeching monkeys.” Of course, the humans don’t react well to that label, and that’s a constant source of humor. For example, at one point, a soldier complains to Bishop that humans have evolved past monkeys, and he’d like Bishop to ask Skippy to stop calling them monkeys. So Bishop asks Skippy to stop calling humans monkeys because of evolution. Skippy blithely says they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it. Skippy doesn’t think we’ve evolved past monkeys at all!

Even that bit of humor sets up moments like Skippy exalting how monkeys kick ass as they rampage across the galaxy. I like how the humor and drama work together. So far at least, I’ve not seen it inappropriately diminish a serious moment. Far from it — it often frames those moments. The best time to stab someone in the heart is when they’re laughing, after all!

As the series goes on, the stakes get higher. Even then, the dramatic realism doesn’t fade. I’m in the first third of book 10. At that point, Bishop, Skippy, and the rest of the crew have concluded that Earth is, in fact, doomed. All they can do is get as many people to a beta site as they can. Seeing them bravely deal with their despair just increases my respect for them.

Enjoyable Pop Culture References

Since the books take place approximately in our time frame, there’s tremendous potential for movie, book, music, and other cultural references. I’ve seen a lot of science fiction try to incorporate such references. Some do a great job, some less so. In this case, they integrate seamlessly. They fit, and they often enhance the mood.

Not only does it enhance the mood, it makes the world seem more realistic. Isn’t that odd? The action might take place on a starship built by the Thuranin, the patron race of the Kristang. But adding a reference to Knight Rider somehow makes it more accessible.

Expeditionary Force’s Audible Narration Nails It

I like audio books. I drive a lot, but I don’t have a lot of time to sit and read. That means audible books are a fantastic way to consume fiction! I’ve heard a lot of really, really enjoyable narrators. Neil Gaiman reading Neverwhere felt like a revelation. Why? Because he has a masterful command of his characters. So, he brought them to life like no one else could.

Not to take anything from Mr. Gaiman. His achievement remains intact! But the narrator for this series? R.C. Bray so perfectly embodies Joe Bishop that I cannot imagine anyone else doing it. He effortlessly switches between different characters so that I don’t even notice he switched. I don’t think, “Wow, R.C. Bray is doing another great character!” Instead I feel myself listening to Colonel Jeremy Smythe or Major Jennifer Simms speak. He has in effect become those characters.

I’ve listened to some audio books where the narrator made it difficult to immerse myself in the world. In this case, the narrator sounds so much like I imagined Joe Bishop to sound that it’s like Bishop himself is telling me the story. It’s the most seamless audible book I’ve ever listened to.

What I Liked Less about Expeditionary Force

Having a standard template for my reviews helps me organize my thoughts. My book review template includes a section of what I didn’t like about a book or a series. So, I’ve included the heading here.

And I wrote a few sentences to make it look like I actually identified something I didn’t like. Because to be honest with you, there ain’t nothing to write in this section except filler. I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed a series so much. On several occasions, I’ve sat in my car, parked at the curb outside my house, to finish listening to a chapter. So, sorry for the bait and switch. There wasn’t anything I liked less!

Do I Recommend Expeditionary Force?

Good gravy, yes! If you like military science fiction at all, this is absolutely worth checking out. The first book is a safe investment. Everything I liked about Columbus Day carried forward in future books. If anything, the experience just became more rich as the characters and world developed.

Have you read any of the Expeditionary Force books? What did you think? Please feel free to let me know in the comments!