Troy Rising: Live Free Or Die
by John Ringo
Cover Artist: Kurt Miller
Review by Ernest Lilley
Baen Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781439133323
Date: 16 February 2010 List Price $26.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
John Ringo's latest Mil-SF adventure begins when aliens drag a stargate into the solar system and declare it an exit to the Pan-Galactic highway. Unfortunately they just build the roads, they don't police them, so when the Horvath come through the gate and set themselves up as our overlords the roadbuilders tell us we're on our own. If you're familiar with the author's books, or the Yankee tenet that the book is named for you know that we're not about to settle for that state of affairs for long.
I had no sooner finished reading Gwyneth Jones' essay on Mil-SF, "Wild Hearts in Uniform" (Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics) which deconstructs the sub-genre from Ender Wiggins to Honor Harrington, and I couldn't help but wonder what she would make of Tyler Alexander Vernon, John Ringo's singleminded protagonist in Live Free or Die. Jones is a feminist writer and an outstanding literary critic so you might think that the (nearly) all male cast and boyish bravado would not go down well, but she also "gets" the appeal of serialized plot driven action fiction. As she said elsewhere, "The reader reads the story...not to find out what happens, but to find out how it happens this time."
How it happens this time, is a variant on the aliens arrive, we discover we're hicks, pushy aliens move in on our resources, our military is a joke, we wise up and fight back. It's a fun formula, and Ringo does well by it.
Our story opens when aliens (the Glatun) move a stargate ring into the solar system and inform us that we're now an exit on the interstellar highway. We don't collect tolls though, they do. And anyone who wants to pay the tolls can use it. Including the next batch of aliens (the Horvath) who come through. The first batch were fairly neutral, with really advanced tech, and think reasonably like us. The second were less advanced, more hostile, squidlike in appearance, and tended towards the hive/communist polity. And the Horvath showed up with a battleship capable of wiping out major cities without much apparent effort, which they do to a few just so we get the point.
The point is that all our metals are theirs, and could we mine it for them and haul it to a "tribute" point where they could pick up their "piece of the action?"
So, basically, we have met the enemy and we are screwed.
Earth's last hope, it turns out, is Tyler Alexander Vernon, a 5'2" ex-IT guy and science fiction webcomic artist who's chopping wood in New Hampshire and working nights in a supermarket to get by. Both IT and SF pretty much tanked after aliens showed up with scrap computer logic that was nearly worthless to them and better than gold to us.
Now, if you think that fandom is too tough to give up SF just because aliens show up, you're on the same page as the author. It's a bit smaller, but there are still cons, and Tyler goes to supplement his income by selling comic art and t shirts. When the organizer of a nearby con snags a "real live Glatun" as a speaker, Tyler gets to spend some time talking with a real trader, and since his webcomic had been a wry look at tramp trading between the stars...it's only natural that he turns out to be a fan.
Though the aliens haven't found anything on Earth worth the price of a trip here, about which they're bummed enough to take Tyler up on his offer to bring some of Earth's choicest delicacies by in the back of his pickup truck for them to analyze. The choice delicacies come from discards at the market he works at, and though most of them are either poisonous (things really don't go better for Aliens with Coke) or uninteresting, one substance turns out to be delicious, intoxicating, and valuable beyond all reason.
That substance would be "Dragon's Tears," an extremely rare commodity which first requires making a mythical beast cry. Or, in layman's terms, maple syrup.
That's when things start to get sticky (Did I say that out loud?).
Anyway, Tyler goes from chopping wood for a few bucks to being the richest man on the planet in one shrewd trade. What do you do after a day like that? If you're Tyler, you buy up most of New England and parts of Canada. Basically every square foot of land that can grow maple syrup. Tyler stipulates to his newly acquired legal team that anyone who really doesn't want to sell their land shouldn't have their arms twisted too hard. Though he's from the south himself, he respects the die hard stubbornness of Yankees. In fact, he's counting on it.
Though Tyler made the deal with the Glatuns, our alien overlord masters the Horvath figure it out soon enough and demand that Earth add its stocks of maple syrup to the tribute. Which is where the stubbornness of one Reb and a bunch of Yankees comes in.
When "The Maple Syrup War" is over, Tyler finds himself richer than ever, enough so that he can go off-world, buy a starship of his own (Monkey Business) and a small feet of shuttle/tugs (Monkey's Paws) to start a project of his own, namely building a fleet of space-going solar mirrors with which to melt asteroids to mine. Why the aliens don't do that and why they don't take it away from us is more or less covered as the plot rolls by.
With each chapter Tyler adds more and more tools to Earth's kit, all with the hope of getting us to the point where we can kick the aliens out and make good on the title of the book.
John Ringo absolutely excels at this sort of straight ahead man v the cosmos writing, and his battle sequences totally rock as well. It's unfortunate that there are no ground actions here, just space battles, but only because he has a knack for both. Tyler is about as one dimensional a character as is humanly possible, and once he gets the bit in his teeth to save humanity from the alien menace he cuts himself off from any personal relationship that doesn't add to the equation, including distancing himself from his daughters and ex-wife to keep them out of danger.
Don't bother complaining about shallow characters, it comes with the territory. When mankind isn't in danger of being wiped out by alien whim, I'm sure the characters will find time to kick back and get some angst on.
The advanced aliens come to earth and the we-learn-fast formula is always engaging. Brin's Uplift Universe is one of the best examples of it I know, and actually, it comes complete with angst ridden characters. The example that Live Free or Die most reminds me of, at least the first half or so, is First Contract by Greg Costikyan where we go through much the same cycle, but make our bones selling the aliens cheap trinkets and work our way up the economic ladder. Unfortunately, Greg only wrote the first book, so his story ends about a third or the way through Live Free or Die which uses some serious time compression to go from down and out in New England to Earth's own Alien Ass Kicking Death Star defending the solar system.
My only complaint about the book is that the evolution goes by too fast. C'mon John, haven't you heard of foreplay? (Don't answer that...I've read your Ghost books).
The good news is that there are no doubt more books to come in this series and they'll be fun to read. The bad news is that having more or less jumped the shark by the end of the first one (though with darn good space science plotting the trajectory) the story will lose its tenuous connection to the here and now it started out in. Once mankind has its own battle fleet, the story might as well be set a thousand years out. I guess you can't really blame the author for zooming ahead with the story, though. I'm sure he as got carried away having fun with it as I did with the result.