At a time when the vast majority of science fiction is bleak and technology is portrayed as potentially disastrous, all optimistic, forward-thinking works deserve special attention. Be it Taylor’s Bobiverse or Weir’s Project Hail Mary, readers like me appreciate true escapism to a world where wonders still exist, people are still capable of great things and humanity can overcome any challenges to flourish within the galaxy. Ringo’s Troy Rising series is yet another shining example of this kind of work. Unlike the others mentioned, however, it also presents a more grounded story, authentic characters and near-future predictions, some of which came impressively close to reality.
Humanity is no longer cut off from the rest of the universe. A star gate has floated into the solar system, opened, and an automated message informed our leaders that the trade oriented Glatuns have opened our neck of the galactic woods to anyone who wants to visit. Then they left us to fend for ourselves. Soon, we got the next batch of visitors: the Horvath. They promptly destroyed three large cities and told us that they’d “protect” us from more damage in exchange for the world’s total output of heavy metals, from gold to platinum and beyond. Mankind didn’t have any defense, so they did as they were told. Unfortunately, in the absence of heavy metals, technological progress was virtually stopped, and Earth could not develop weapons to chase the Horvath away. The Glatun traders stopped by occasionally, but the only thing they were interested in were the same metals, and Earth could not provide any.
Tyler Vernon was a former computer geek and author of a somewhat famous comic strip. With the arrival of the aliens, nobody was interested in either anymore, and so he ended up in Vermont, doing odd jobs. Until he met a Glatun trader who was familiar with his comic. They started talking, and the trader agreed to sample some human products for trade. Of all the samples Tyler provided, one proved to be the jackpot. Maple sirup turned out to be akin to crack for the Glatun, and the initial few gallons yielded so much alien technology to Tyler that he instantly became one of the richest people on the planet. He set to acquire most of the maple forests in Vermont, and the next time the Glatun came, he was ready to trade enormous quantities of the stuff, earning him more money than the entire output of the Earth.
With these funds, Tyler traveled to Glatun space, got himself top-grade implants and a small mining ship, with the goal to mine asteroids in the solar system. Unfortunately, the Horvath caught wind of the miracle product and demanded that all would be turned over to them. First a civil war and then a skirmish with the Horvath ensued, until the Glatun with their superior technology put an end to it. It turned out that orbital bombardment of maple tree forests was counterproductive, and when the locals refused to work on collecting the syrup for the Horvath, nobody was able to harvest enough to satisfy their demands. An uneasy ceasefire ensued, which allowed Tyler to expand his asteroid mining enterprise by building and deploying an increasing number of space mirrors, to focus solar energy to melt the asteroids.
As the Glatun started losing power and began preparing for defense against much stronger opponents, the Horvath tried to strike again. This time, however, it was a virus, engineered to kill of 90% of the human population. Fortunately, the Glatun developed a vaccine, and Tyler and the WHO managed to distribute it worldwide. Due to a low vaccine uptake in some regions, though, the loss of life was still massive, but nowhere as much as it could have been. After a while the Horvath returned to Earth to take it over directly, but Tyler, with a bit of luck, managed to destroy their ship with his space mirrors. The race was on to build a stronger orbital defense against future attacks.
Tyler found an asteroid, which he converted into a large hollow sphere with a thick iron shell. This has become the main military base, set up directly in front of the star gate. With the help of a Glatun magnate who was hoping that mankind would help them in their upcoming war, Tyler started developing his own space armada, deploying increasingly larger mirror arrays and employing very powerful A.I. entities that the magnate transferred to him. Even before the work on Troy, as the asteroid became known, was completed, the Horvath struck again, with an entire fleet. Troy drew most of the fire, and the mirrors managed to destroy all the Horvath ships. With very few missiles launched at Earth, the A.I. powered targeting systems had no problems shooting all projectiles down, saving Earth.
The first book ended on a high note, underlining the mood of the entire story. Sure, there were tragic occurrences, but Ringo kept the mood light by choosing a protagonist who was too busy doing his own thing to witness the destruction and misery. I appreciated that. I can read about destruction and misery in many other books that I enjoy as well, but I was glad to shut off my brain and fully enjoy a light, easy flowing space opera with a little humor. If I were to compare Live Free or Die with other recent works, I’d pick books by John Scalzi. Both have the same free-flowing language that makes them very easy to read, and both feature humor that make me laugh aloud. The difference is that Ringo’s humor is less on the nose and gentler, and his protagonists are not the insufferable smartasses of Scalzi’s novels.
That’s not to say that Ringo’s protagonists are perfect. In fact, there is only one: Tyler Vernon. The rest is a very one-dimensional support cast that shows up only for Tyler to provide some exposure to. Tyler himself is far from relatable. He is abrasive, often ruthless, and he views human tragedy like a Federal Reserve economist. He simply highlights that this is a story about worldbuilding, not people. Still, the novel was published in 2010, and in hindsight Tyler has proven to be very intriguing. He seems to be a blueprint for Jeff Bezos. Tyler also finds a product that is considered mundane with low profit margins, and turns it into a successful venture, which then finances his more outlandish projects. He is misunderstood and mocked in his outer space efforts, until he proves that he is right. He is also not very personable and does not care when he is called out for not using the bulk of his money for charitable goals. I don’t even pretend to understand what Bezos is trying to achieve with his space venture, but that just puts me in the position of the average inhabitant of Ringo’s Earth. Tyler Vernon is even more uncanny, though, when another resemblance is considered: he is heavily relying on government contracts and subsidies, while lobbying for tax exemptions. This is essentially Elon Musk’s business strategy. Thirteen years ago, John Ringo accurately predicted the rise of two of the richest people on the planet.
That’s not the only interesting prediction, though. We have an entire storyline concerning a deadly virus. Ten years before Covid, Ringo already predicted a virus that was engineered to kill the frail and old. Ringo also focused on those with predisposition to cancer instead of obese people, and then he went overboard with killing 90% of the rest. However, the early stages of the virus are comparable with Covid. The author then had the WHO deploying a global vaccination program, which has been resisted by a portion of the population, who then suffered the consequences. You cannot get a better endorsement of the Covid vaccination efforts than that. These two similarities with the current world, the world’s richest businessman and the engineered virus, caused the novel to age very well, but also to overshadow some not so positive narrative elements.
The one thing that distracted me from enjoying the story were Ringo’s heavy-handed attempts at allegory with past and present events. I first took note when Tyler was monologuing about how the Horvath situation was comparable with the American Civil War, with the evil Horvath in the position of the North, while the Vermont maple farmers were like the American South. That’s when I realized that Ringo tailored the first act precisely to resemble the Civil War, just so that he could make a point. Later in the book, the author is not actually spelling out the resemblance between the plot and real historical events, but I became paranoid enough to consider each unlikely scenario to be yet another manipulation to rewrite history. I’d be much happier if the Civil War exposure did not happen, and I’d remain blissful in my ignorance that I was reading just a simple, light-hearted space opera where the good guys prevail.
Still, I must admit that I greatly enjoyed the book. I was still able to overcome the unlikable protagonist, very flat secondary characters and social commentary close to the level of Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series and be awed by the scale and rate of the technological advancements, which were presented as entirely plausible. The easy, free-flowing prose, along with the age-appropriate humor, made the book a real page-turner. Live Free or Die is an excellent beginning of an escapist series for numerous long evenings.