Book review: Wayward Galaxy by Jason Anspach and J. N. Chaney

The Soviets are back to their old tricks against the Americans.  But this time, it’s warfare in space!  This military science fiction is a wonderful return to the past, but with updated concepts and technology.  I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of nostalgia I could squeeze out of the book, even though I must assume that the authors were cynically including obscure references, just to create a little online buzz as readers try to find all of them.  The story is not groundbreaking, but it offers some great set pieces, good action, and authentic characters.

In the future, the Soviets and Chinese form an alliance to attack the US and its allies.  They launch surprise attacks all around the globe and are successful in pushing the Allies back.  The US has a fallback plan: a habitable planet and three colony ships.  The first one, filled with Army Rangers, is supposed to set up the colony, while the second and third one, with the colonists and defense personnel, should populate the planet.  Unfortunately, they have to move fast, lest the RUPAC forces beat them to the planet.

When the first ship arrives, most of the Rangers are dead in their cryo chambers.  To make matters worse, the planet is already occupied by the RUPAC, which is putting up some semblance of defense.  Russian soldiers and their allies can’t fight too well.  Their weaponry is outdated, and they are used to throw waves of soldiers against the enemy.  The Americans handily defeat them, but the enemy becomes a nuisance when they begin employing a drug that makes them pain and fear resistant.

Reach, a former marine and the appointed liaison between the civilian and military leadership, is drafted to lead the second platoon in defense of the new colony camp.  During his sleep on the voyage he had been enhanced.  Physically, he is stronger, faster and an excellent marksman.  He also knows several languages now.  The main change the ship’s A.I. Alexa did, however, was to implant everyone’s minds with a favorable opinion of Reach, which makes it very easy for him to command the loyalty of his troops.  And yes, the text directly references Amazon’s Jeff Bezos when Alexa is first introduced…

Reach finds the starter colony in a state of ruin.  Together with the survivors of the ship they are trying to piece together how the equipment and buildings could deteriorate so much in the few weeks between the colony set-up and their arrival.  While most of the personnel is trying to repair the colony outpost, Reach searches for the RUPAC military base, and instead finds a woman who speaks broken English.  He and the others soon realize that the woman, Liana, is a descendant from the people from the second and third colony ships.  They visit the crash site and Liana’s camp and find out that somehow the first ship had been lost in space for about 300 years before arriving on the planet.  Liana’s people are defended by a second A.I., Brody, which had been damaged during the crash and doesn’t remember the exact date of their arrival.

Soon after joining forces, the colonists are attacked by a much better organized army of RUPAC soldiers, with advanced weaponry.  They are after the two A.I.s, who in their humanoid bodies are far superior to anyone else in the fight.  Even they may not be enough, however, as the enemy deploys devices to neutralize the androids, their forces are far superior, and they have taken hostages.

This is a strictly by the numbers military science fiction.  The authors set a scenario, which lets them play fast and lose with the rules.  The defenders are set up in two camps, with clearly defined military capabilities, and their numbers are finite.  The RUPAC troops, on the other hand, come out of nowhere, in never-ending waves, with increasingly advanced military technology.  It is a matter of time and attrition, or a divine miracle, to see the good guys to succeed.  And it’s very clear that the good guys are Americans.  The bad guys are primarily Russians, with a smattering of other nationalities.  Not only that; they are “commies” again.  Just this premise made the book so much more exciting for me.  Once again, after years of ambiguous adversaries, we have clearly delineated sides, which are very formulaic, but at least they don’t get in the way of the action.  I don’t mean it ironically.  I am genuinely happy to be able to relax my brain, and just enjoy what’s going on, without attributing secondary motives to anyone or question the moral superiority of one side over the other.

We can go even farther with this.  The RUPAC troops are absolutely faceless, near automatons, who carry out their orders and nothing else.  They don’t speak even during interrogation, so we can’t assign them any personalities.  That’s all for the better; we can spend more time on the protagonists.  The main character is Reach, but Alexa and Brody, the two androids, command almost as much attention.  Others are also quite well fleshed out.  The most amazing thing about all of them is how authentic they appear.  It is very refreshing to see everyone acting rationally.  They are soldiers after all, and even reveals, such as that Alexa manipulated others’ brains to be more favorable to Reach, aren’t met with temper tantrums.  People are too busy fighting, with no space for drama, and when anyone has a good idea or shows initiative, others appreciate it.  One such instance was when one of the commanding officers found a pilot loitering around, tasked him with hard labor, only to come back and see the pilot going above and beyond his new duties.  The pilot receives praise from the commanding officer for that.  This incident had no bearing on the story, but it serves to point out that everyone is a rational, mature human being.

The fights are yet another highlight of the book.  The authors paint very vivid set pieces, with only the detail that is necessary to the fight.  I still don’t know the layout of the colony’s focal point, Camp Ohio, where most of the fight takes place, but I don’t need to know it.  I was told just enough to follow the battle.  There was one instance that confused me, but the rest was just a series of very well described encounters.  The authors also managed to keep the suspense strong, despite the enormous power of the two androids and Reach’s enhancements, which virtually guaranteed head kills with each shot.

The androids themselves were also quite interesting.  Alexa is subtly changing, growing, during the story.  I like to contrast her to Skippy, the insane A.I. from the Expeditionary Force series.  I stopped reading that series due to my dislike of Skippy.  It always tries to steal each scene it is in, and even though it is nearly omnipotent, it is too insane to be helpful half the time.  Here, we have a subdued A.I. that works mainly in the background, which is highly capable, but whose main goal is to enable others.  She goes as far as to learn to express human emotion, not because she has feelings, but because acting human will let her help others more easily.  She is the best kind of servant leader.  Then we have Brody, who acts as the comedic relief.  And possibly something much more sinister: a character aimed at generating marketing buzz on social media.

Brody got damaged when his ship crash-landed.  He was also very bored, as he strived to keep all colonists in stasis until help arrived.  So, he spent his time watching and rewatching 1980s action movies over and over again, and every time he opens his mouth, it is to utter a phrase from those movies.  Or to come with rather interesting philosophical questions, such as how long World War II would have lasted if the Allies were all Rambos.  The movie and TV quotes from Brody are a nice throwback, but I felt that not only there were too many of them, but many have already aged too much.  80s action movies may have been popular, but by now most people “remember” only what they see in various memes.  So, references to movies like Iron Eagle or TV shows like Max Headroom may be already confusing to many readers.  For those of us, who grew up in the 80s, these references may dredge up memories, but others will just see Brody as a loud, defective (but lovable) killing machine, shouting nonsense.

I truly enjoyed this book.  It will not give any specific insights, and it will not force the reader to think too much.  And that’s all for the better.  If anything, I deeply admire the authors’ self-restraint in keeping the story as basic as possible.  There are no significant side stories, characters who don’t need to be complicated aren’t, and even the fights are simplified so that they are easily followed.  People act rationally and predictably, and logic extends even into such minute details as language barriers across generations of English speakers (Neal Stephenson should take note).  The 80s movie references were a bit too much even for someone like me, who enjoyed those movies, and they felt a little forced.  But even so, this was one very entertaining read, and I’ll be picking up the sequel upon publication.

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