Volume 29, Number 2, Winter 2011

Live Free or Die

By John Ringo

Baen Books, 2010
Reviewed by David Wayland

The state of New Hampshire’s official motto, which appears on license plates, is “Live Free or Die.” This should in no way imply the state of New Hampshire is a libertarian Galt’s Gulch. The title of John Ringo’s 2010 novel and Prometheus Award Best Novel finalist is Live Free or Die. This should in no way imply his novel is libertarian, despite its appearance as a Prometheus Award finalist.

Ringo’s turgid and stilted prose paints the opening background in broad strokes. Low-level star gazers track an object through space that seems natural, but ends up being a space-ship. It is, in effect, a gateway hauled into place by aliens, who tell the various leaders of earth that anyone can use it, friendly or hostile. Shortly thereafter the first hostile aliens appear, the Horvath, who start by immediately nuking major Earth cities and demanding tribute in the form of previous metals. This sets the stage for Ringo’s ouvre, military sf on a grand scale. And war, as the old saying goes, is the health of the state. With war, some people can dream big on the backs and minds of others, move vast armies around like set-pieces, and marshal forces into giga-projects to achieve greatness.

Ringo’s novel varies this somewhat, as the central character, the confusingly named Tyler Alexander Vernon, starts from relative humble beginnings. After a successful career as an SF graphic artist crashes once SF becomes mundane, he works five part-time jobs in New Hampshire, when a chance meeting with a more friendly yet non-interventionist alien turns him into the wealthiest man on Earth in one blinding instant, as he becomes the biggest drug dealer to the friendly aliens (their economy and society bears a striking resemblance to over-extended welfare states, with high taxation and unemployment, but strangely, the only controlled substance is Coca Cola, not this new drug). Tyler takes advantage of his new wealth to gain knowledge and technology, trying to find ways to struggle out from the iron heel of the aggressive aliens who control Earth. Meanwhile, every government actively collaborates with these aliens, including an Obama-like President of the US who sends his own troops to control the new addictive drug, which apparently is the only item on Earth that is trade-worthy.

I struggled almost in vain to find libertarian elements in this book. The “Live Free or Die” motto appears early, but fades away, replaced by the singular efforts of Tyler to create visions and methods no other human could conceive to try to defeat the nasty aliens who rule Earth. Dialog dominates the text, a head-buzzing and endless stream of info-dump and directives. Tyler, possibly an avatar of Ringo, is an admitted conservative, at times irritated with the government, especially the IRS, but quickly falls into bed with them when it meets his goal. Millions, perhaps billions, of humans die, yet only Tyler has the vision to see through the defeat of the Horvath.

This novel, the first in a trilogy, is all about ambition. Everything must happen quickly, and on a grand scale. I almost felt let down that Tyler didn’t blow up Venus or create a Dyson Sphere. Tyler is a purely one-dimensional character, clinical and emotionless, aside from occasional jokes about himself as an evil overlord, or modelled on Napoleon (both short and ambitious). Other characters talk about themselves as if with an external eye (the barbarian really does know that he is a barbarian), and the aliens and alien culture appear no different in tone from Star Trek aliens with ridges on their noses as the key indicator of their difference from humans. In fact, we learn little of these aliens, and they seem at most excuses for someone to drum up ideas and methods to bootstrap humans into space, for us to take our rightful and ascendent place in the stars among other species who roam between the stars.

While I enjoy good sf yarns (what I consider in the tradition of Rafael Sabatini in space), nothing in this book hooked me or made me care, not about the characters, nor the outcome. Maybe I don’t read enough military sf for this novel to appeal to me, but even personal preferences set aside, I would have though the Libertarian Futurist Society had higher standards for their Best Novel Award. Awards demand excellence, and I would think among the practitioners of the craft of science fiction the LFS could find works that actually apply the idea of liberty, not just in the sense of “fight the alien invaders,” especially when the focus is all wrapped up in the cult of one person, one savior of mankind.

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