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Von Neumann's War by John Ringo and Travis S. Taylor

Cover art by Kurt Miller

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

A while back, several of my friends were getting rather excited about a news report about how the government was supposedly coming clean about their involvement with UFO's and extraterrestrials. I'm just sitting there thinking about how I wish it were true -- I once had a dream in which it was being announced that the government was opening diplomatic relations with extraterrestrial nations, and when I woke up and realized it was all a dream I was just crushed with disappointment -- but really, if our government really did have hard evidence that We Are Not Alone, do you really think for a moment that NASA would be having to struggle to get enough money to even keep functioning at the shoestring level they are?

And then I read this book, and I'm thinking yeah, the authors have got to have been thinking along those lines, because they give us a pretty sharp picture of just what the reaction would be if the US government really did have clear evidence that there is Someone Out There. It starts simply, with some sudden changes in the appearance of Mars. Changes subtle enough at first that they're almost missed, except that the astronomers who notice them insist on looking closer.

The next big clue that Something Very Strange Is Going On is the sudden destruction of a Mars probe, just as it is about to get close enough to really get a good look at what is going on. Destruction in such a way that it's pretty clear that it was not merely an accident, but a deliberate act by the entity or entities transforming Mars. For some reason, they do not want us taking a close look at what they're doing down there.

So what does the government do in response? It's certainly not business as usual, quibbling over whether the expenditure is Really NEC-essary. No, it's time for a crash program to get a stealth probe in there, using as many off-the-shelf components as possible in order to make the process as fast as possible. If we know that we have neighbors, and they are not exactly acting friendly or interested in buying cheap plastic whatsits from us, it's not the time to worry about pinching a few pennies.

This probe gets closer before it's destroyed, close enough to see that somebody or something is building a vast complex of megastructures all over the planet. And worse, there's evidence that these entities have been doing likewise to the moons of the various Jovian planets, in a slow but ever-increasing march that can only lead in one place -- Earth.

So now it's time to put together some kind of defense against an enemy about which they know only the scantiest hints. An enemy with an enormous technological advantage over humanity, which is establishing a beachhead on the Moon even as the decisionmakers watch.

The first target is France, and given some public statements that were made by one co-author during the invasion of Iraq, I'm thinking that this is a very deliberate choice and he may well have really enjoyed writing the fall of that particular nation. And it's a nasty one, as our hero Captain Shane Gries, US Army, gets to see first-hand. The aliens prove to be self-replicating robots shaped vaguely like giant boomerangs and displaying a voracious appetite for metal. So much so that people are literally torn to pieces by the probes' eagerness to tear away metal jewelry or surgical implants.

Shane barely gets out, and heads back home to the good old US of A to fight what is increasingly looking like a hopeless fight against aliens that can't be communicated with or reasoned with, which have no emotions or other attributes that can be appealed to, which seem to exist only to produce more of themselves and to build the mysterious megastructures that were noted on Mars, presumably to launch their descendants into space to devour other stellar systems. They're not quite as horrible as Fred Saberhagen's Berserkers, since they are not actively hostile to organic life, but they're completely oblivious to the harm they're doing to humanity, and quite possibly to the very existence of humanity.

And it's not just France. All over the Eastern Hemisphere, the mysterious alien probes are dispossessing humanity of its home, reducing people to little more than vermin desperately struggling to eke out an existence in the interstices of the alien construction -- I hesitate to call it a civilization, because as I've noted above, we're not dealing with self-aware beings, but with self-replicating mechanical devices which are apparently following programming that was placed in the original production lot of them, programming which may just have been badly thought-out or which may have become actively corrupted to the point we can no longer determine what the original intent of their creators may have been.

And at this point it hardly matters what that original intent may have been, because those probes are finding their way across the Atlantic and the Pacific, attacking the great cities of the East and West Coasts. Tearing down buildings and monuments known around the world as symbols of the USA. Here's where we see some more somewhat partisan humor in the choices of structures heavily associated with left-wing political causes. In other words, the humor may not be for everyone, and may be actively offensive to those of a certain kind of liberal persuasion.

So it's looking pretty hopeless, but our dauntless heroes refuse to give up. In that grand old pulpish tradition, they're trying everything they can think of that might just work. At least the probes aren't entirely without weakness -- a good, solid blow to a vulnerable place can knock one out -- but there are so many of them and they're replicating so rapidly that there's no way to take them out faster than they can make more of themselves. However, enough have been captured successfully to provide a pool for disassembly and study, and bit by bit the scientists are able to discover enough of the probes' mechanism that glimmers of hope begin to appear in the otherwise seemingly hopeless situation.

It's interesting how the authors handle the problem of finding that sweet spot between an Alien Menace that's too weak, so that the ending seems too easy and possibly contrived, and one that's too strong (everybody dies, game over man, what a downer). Since this is a Baen book and Jim Baen had a strong preference for books in which the Good Guys win at the end, a preference which has become encoded into the culture of the company even now that he is gone, I felt confident that humanity wasn't going to get squashed, so the question was how it was going to be brought about.

Some readers may complain that certain parts are clichéd or hokey, particularly the Beautiful Babe Scientist characters that appear here and there. However, given the handling of several other elements (including several blatant homages to Mars Attacks!), I feel confident in saying that these elements were probably intended to be humorous, rather than being included carelessly.

The ending is hopeful, and suggests that humanity will end up with a long-term net gain as a result of the scientific and technological breakthroughs learned from the captured and suborned probes. Especially considering that there almost certainly have to be a lot more of the things out there, meaning that humanity may well face additional assaults in the future, there's certainly room for additional novels in this universe. However, the ending is such that the novel functions as a completely satisfying stand-alone, and I would not be disappointed if they never wrote another story about that universe.

Review posted October 31, 2010.

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