Way back in the day an old football coach named Bum Phillips said of the legendary football coach Bear Bryant that “Bryant can take his’n and beat your’n, and then he can turn around and take your’n and beat his’n.” People had a funny way of talking back then. Anyway, Phillips’ statement is high praise, and uniquely defines the quality Bear Bryant possessed to get the most of any resources at hand.
Joe Bishop has the same ability. Joe is both the protagonist and first-person narrator of “Columbus Day,” and rudely has his Columbus Day holiday ruined by an alien invasion. Joe is a military man, and doesn’t hesitate to spring into action when he sees his planet under attack. Leading a small force made up of members of his community, Joe takes one of the alien invaders hostage in an ice cream truck with Barney painted on the side, establishing that Joe is an extraordinary resource manager and doesn’t let an outside of the box idea get in the way of results.
From that point in the book, Joe navigates the reality of a world in which humans are not alone and must find creative ways to use every resource at hand to survive. The first alien species that attacks Earth is known as the Ruhar, and they are soon repelled by a second alien race known as the Kristang. The Kristang become a type of sponsor to the human race, sharing a little bit of technology, offering protection, and enlisting a human army to assist them in battle against the Ruhar. Joe is part of this army, and his enlistment sets the stage for all future interactions he has with alien races.
Normally I wouldn’t like a book with such a linear storyline, but the matchup here between a very cause and effect plot (there are no subplots really) and hearing everything from Joe’s perspective just works. It isn’t a particularly new idea to have a character serve as a vehicle for exposition, and I don’t think the author Craig Alanson is trying to reinvent a trope here by bringing the reader up to speed through everything Joe experiences.
Rather, Joe is situated in a universe that is rich in alien political dynamics, and the human race was late getting an invitation to the table. Those political dynamics are the unique flavor Alanson is attempting to bring to science fiction and I found the universe Alanson creates to be full of fascinating storylines to explore. Joe Bishop’s adventures localize the action taking place against a galactic backdrop. It makes sense in the context of those warring alien races for the reader to learn about all of the past events that have brought the human race to this point, and Joe is just the right guy to do it with.
“Columbus Day” does have a few warts. The quality of Alanson’s ideas outpace his writing talent a little bit. That probably sounds harsh, but I mean it as a compliment. Authors can get better at writing, but good ideas are either there or not, and Alanson has the ideas down. There are typos that get a little bit distracting, and Joe has a different way of speaking that takes some getting used to. There isn’t really any difference between how Joe talks and how the narrative is written, but if you can get past those things you’ll find a science fiction universe full of fresh, compelling ideas and a reluctant hero that’s easy to root for. “Columbus Day” is the first book in the “Expeditionary Force” series, so there’s a lot more to enjoy as Joe Bishop confronts just how much everything changes for the human race and the abnormally huge role he plays in determining humanity’s future.