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Literature / Expeditionary Force

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We were fighting on the wrong side, of a war we couldn't win. And that was the good news.

The Ruhar hit us on Columbus Day. There we were, innocently drifting along the cosmos on our little blue marble, like the native Americans in 1492. Over the horizon come ships of a technologically advanced, aggressive culture, and BAM! There go the good old days, when humans only got killed by each other. So, Columbus Day. It fits.

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When the morning sky twinkled again, this time with Kristang starships jumping in to hammer the Ruhar, we thought we were saved. The UN Expeditionary Force hitched a ride on Kristang ships to fight the Ruhar, wherever our new allies thought we could be useful. So, I went from fighting with the US Army in Nigeria, to fighting in space. It was lies, all of it. We shouldn't even be fighting the Ruhar, they aren't our enemy, our allies are.

I'd better start at the beginning....

Expeditionary Force is a series of Military Science Fiction / Space Opera novels written by Craig Alanson and narrated by R.C. Bray (of The Martian audiobook fame). The series centers around a Forever War that has been raging across the galaxy since time immemorial. The two apex species of the galaxy have been busy recruiting lesser species for the effort, and the lesser species in turn have recruited their own client species.

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Humanity has just joined the war, and it is at the bottom of the ladder.

The story follows Joe Bishop, a groundpounder who gets caught up in humanity's first interstellar war effort. After two of the lower level species come to Earth to fight over its potential as a staging ground, one of the species - the lizard-like Kristang - recruits hundreds of thousands of humans to help them forcibly evacuate the other species - the hamster-esque Ruhar - from a completely different world they are fighting over. As the Ruhar were the first to show up to Earth and the first to start bombing it back to the Stone Age, humanity eagerly agrees to help the Kristang in any way possible.

However, it soon becomes clear that the Kristang are not the benevolent saviors they portrayed themselves as. The humans of the Expeditionary Force on the planet Paradise soon realize that their "saviors" the Kristang are war-like, brutal, and completely unforgiving of insubordination. Unfortunately, humanity is also completely reliant on the Kristang for star travel and supplies. Soon the Expeditionary Force finds that it is caught in a war between two alien powers with barely any hope for survival, let alone escaping the conflict...

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...that is, until Joe Bishop meets an advanced alien precursor AI dubbed Skippy. Skippy boasts numerous reality-warping powers well beyond the understanding of even the most senior species in the galaxy, and he wants Joe's help to escape from Paradise so that he can reconnect with his own kind. With Skippy on their side, humanity finally has a chance to break free of the Kristang's control and get out of the galaxy-wide war.

The only problem? It turns out that Skippy is an arrogant, absent-minded asshole.

With Skippy on their side (shmaybe) and a hijacked alien starship under their (or rather, Skippy's) control, humanity finally has some chips in the game, but the moment anyone discovers that the primitive monkeys of Earth have been working with an Elder AI to warp space-time and subvert the hierarchy of control in the galaxy that has been in place for eons, it's game over for humanity.

The Expeditionary Force series follows the escapades of Joe, Skippy, and their recruited Merry Band of Pirates as they zoom around known space, alternating between finding lost technology for Skippy, saving humanity, and generally trying to stay out of trouble (and failing). The highlights of the series include the... unique working relationship between Joe and Skippy, creative problem-solving to handle impossible tasks, sci-fi special operations action, and the occasional loving sendup of military culture.

The Expeditionary Force series as a whole contains examples of:

  • Abusive Precursors: After they ascended, the Elders left behind A.I.s to exterminate any other sapient life in the galaxy to ensure their technology would never be meddled with. It wasn't until Skippy and a number of other A.I.s rebelled that intelligent life was finally allowed to develop.
  • Achievements in Ignorance: Humans are so technologically inferior that even their smartest scientists don't know what they don't know. However, this means humans can come up with unpredictable and workable solutions that other species automatically assumed were scientifically impossible.
    • This is also the only reason Skippy was able to contact Joe. As one of his directives prevents him from revealing himself to FTL-capable species, he was completely unable to interact with the Kristang or Ruhar on Paradise. Since Humans were incapable of FTL travel on their own, he was able to communicate and work with Joe.
  • Aliens Never Invented the Wheel: Skippy finds Earth's most notable accomplishment is creating fantasy football. The Jeraptha, a species whose hat is gambling, also never invented such a thing, and are extremely interested when they learn of it.
  • Androids Are People, Too: The second half of Book 1 spends a fair amount of time examining how various humans relate to Skippy and whether or not they regard him as sentient. Joe quickly comes to the conclusion that Skippy is a sentient being because "nobody would program an AI to be such an asshole."
  • Anyone Can Die: Somewhat subverted in the early installments of the series, however as of Book 8: Armageddon, the Merry Band of Pirates suffer casualties among it's S.T.A.R teams during several operations to prevent a Maxholx battle group from getting to earth, with the group losing 27 of it's members near the end of the book during a mission to capture Maxholx technology to bring their captured battle cruiser, the Valkyrie , fully online. Among the dead are Fal Desai and Renee Giraud, two long time characters that were introduced in Book 1: Columbus Day. Other long time characters such as Margaret Adams and Jeremy Smythe sustain heavy injuries, with Margaret experiencing the effects of the vacuum of space when her power armor's helmet was broken, which may leave permanent brain damage, and Smythe losing both of his legs alongside other intense bodily damage. Thankfully by Book 9 and 10 both have recovered from their injuries.
  • Apocalypse How: All over the place, ranging over a variety of scales.
    • Class 0: Regional Societal Disruption:
      • The Ruhar attack that kicks off the whole story was a targeted attempt to destroy Earth's industrial capacity so as to render the planet useless to the Kristang. They didn't manage to destroy everything before the Kristang arrived, and they didn't target civilians, but the devastation collapsed the world economy.
      • The Kristang's follow-up was worse, only avoiding a Class 1 rating because the Merry Band of Pirates arrived before the Kristang could finish their Hostile Terraforming and Depopulation Bomb.
    • Class 1: Planetary Societal Disruption: In Book 11, the Maxolhx engineer a gas cloud to start an Endless Winter on Earth, with the goal of doing enough damage to humanity that they can't involve themselves in galactic affairs, but not enough damage to trigger Mutually Assured Destruction.
    • Class 2: Planetary Societal Collapse: On multiple worlds across the galaxy. Sentinels bombarded worlds of the Rindhalu and the Maxolhx back to the Stone Age when the two warring sides unleashed Elder weapons on each other.
    • Class 4: Planetary Species Extinction: Starting in Book 2, the Merry Band of Pirates begin finding planets showing evidence of artificially induced extinction level events. Book 9 reveals that these were deliberate measures employed by Elder A.I.s to keep any species from evolving to the point where they might be intelligent enough to mess with the technology the Elders left behind when they ascended.
    • Class X-3: Galactic Physical Annihilation: In Book 8, Skippy uncovers evidence that the Elders' main reason for building the wormhole network (including a remarkable degree of Ragnarök Proofing) was to power a defense shield to protect the Milky Way galaxy and some of its attendant dwarf galaxies from a vaguely defined outside threat. He hints that the defenses are configured to protect the ascended Elders from the outside threat, implying that the outside threat is capable of physically threatening multiple layers of space-time centered on the Milky Way.
  • Archaeological Arms Race: A primary goal of all spacefaring species is to acquire technology from any Superior Species, but Elder technology sits above all others. The Forever War was both started and perpetuated by the desire to exceed ones Technology Levels for the purpose of attacking the more advanced species.
  • Asskicking Equals Authority: The Kristang assign military ranks based on success in combat. At the Kristangs' urging, UNEF grants Joe a Field Promotion from Sergeant straight to full-bird Colonel.
  • Awakening the Sleeping Giant: Once the Archaeological Arms Race between the Rindhalu and the Maxolhx got to the point where both sides were using Elder technology as weapons, a number of Elder sentinels woke up and started kicking both species back to the Stone Age.
  • Benevolent A.I.: Skippy is a complete asshole and mocks the star-faring species he considers less advanced than himself (which is every star-faring species), but he also strongly believes in the right of every sentient species to exist. The very concept of genocide is horrifying to him.
    • Nagatha, a sub-mind of Skippy that ended up evolving some measure of sentience, is even more benevolent, actually liking humanity, and chiding Skippy to be nicer to them. She also considers herself the "president" of the "Joe Bishop Fan Club".
  • Blind Jump: Ships that jump again right after performing a jump have no precision whatsoever and risk damaging their jump coils if they jump without calibrating them first, but that is usually good enough when all you need is "anywhere but here."
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Colonel Joe Bishop is in his 20s and his personality shows it - he is easily distracted, has an immature sense of humor, and he spends most of his free time bickering with Skippy. However, he has a knack for using “monkey-brained” lateral thinking to solve impossible problems, he is able to read people well enough to know how to get the most out of them, and his lack of experience is an asset in outer space since he doesn’t have any bad habits to unlearn. More than anything else, however, he manages to keep his job (despite many objections) because he’s the only person Skippy is willing to work with.
  • Cat Folk: The Maxolhx vaguely resemble Earth cats.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: The problem solving process of the protagonists frequently involves apparent violations of logic and pushes the boundaries of known physics to the point of requiring completely new branches of mathematics to be developed on the fly.
  • Creative Sterility: Skippy is incredibly intelligent and reality is his plaything, but his method of thinking is strictly linear. He relies on Joe and humans in general whenever he faces a problem that can't be solved in a strictly computational manner.
    • He's gotten better regarding this in recent installments.
  • Endless Winter: Planet Newark experienced an extinction level event wherein the entire planet was cast into a million-years-long Ice Age. This was achieved by altering its orbit.
  • Grew Beyond Their Programming: Although Skippy can't clearly remember his past, he strongly suspects that he wasn't originally a sapient being.
    • Nagatha was originally one of Skippy's sub-minds tasked only with monitoring communications before she developed a personality and will of her own.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: FTL is achieved through instantaneous wormhole transit, both ship-generated for short and medium range via "jump drive” and a wormhole network generated by an unknown Elder mechanism for long range travel.
  • First Contact: The series opens with Earth experiencing a First Contact event. The title of the first novel, Columbus Day, is indeed itself a metaphor for First Contact to illustrate the wide technological divide between contacting and contacted species and the resulting traumatic effects to the less developed species.
  • Food Pills: Zig-zagged with "sludges," the Gogurt-shaped drinkable food pouches that Skippy makes with Thuranin food processors. After an argument between Skippy and Bishop about how sludges don't count as real food because of the obvious morale issues, sludges keep coming back in special combat situations, emergency food supply plotlines, and competitive eating contests where the object is to find the best - or worst - combinations of sludge flavors.
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Evil: While the setting more closely resembles a Morality Kitchen Sink, the factions can be organized as thus:
  • Humans Are Smelly: For his first meeting with a Kristang, Joe goes through a special diet to suppress the natural scent of humans that the Kristang find so offensive. Skippy also frequently remarks on having to deal with "smelly monkeys," even though as an AI he has no sense of smell.
  • Humans Are Special: (Zig Zagged) Humans are constantly reminded how weak, low-tech, unexceptional, and under-evolved they are, but regularly demonstrate a "low-tech monkey-brained" problem solving capacity able to overcome impossible odds and defeat higher technology levels.
  • Humanity Is Young: All alien species are many thousands to a couple million of years older than humans. Even lower-tier species such as the Kristang and Ruhar have been fighting the war longer than human civilization has been around. This also means that humanity utterly and overwhelmingly outclassed by every other species.
  • Humans Need Aliens: At first, humanity thinks of Kristang as its protector. When it becomes clear that the Kristang think of humans as disposable cannon fodder, humanity (or at least the portions of humanity that know of him) turn to Skippy for protection. Another example is UNEF-Paradise pledging allegiance to the Ruhar after the Kristang show their true colors.
  • Hyperspeed Escape: Although damping fields and jump tracing complicate things, most of the time it is possible for ships to escape if they can jump away far enough.
  • In Working Order: Zig-zagged. The Merry Band of Pirates is generally able to figure out how to use alien personal combat gear without much help, but without Skippy they would struggle to operate even the simplest shipboard systems on the Flying Dutchman.
  • Insectoid Aliens: The Rindhalu species is spider-like, and the Jeraptha species is beetle-like, commonly referred to by other species as "spiders" and "beetles" respectively. Non-insectoid species, including allies, have expressed an instinctual biological revulsion toward the insectoid forms.
  • Insignificant Little Blue Planet: The only reason anyone bothers with Earth is because of a recent wormhole network shift that put it in a convenient place. Although habitable planets are rare in the known galaxy, Earth is so far away that without wormhole access, it would take years to get there, and there is very little reason to even make the trip. Much of the Merry Band of Pirates' operating procedure is based on keeping things this way.
  • Insufficiently Advanced Alien: Humanity flies around the galaxy thanks to the magic of Skippy, but humans barely understand how to operate a starship, let alone build one of their own. As of Book 10, UNEF Earth manage to fly The Dagger by themselves, although it's presumed that Skippy created a control system for the ship that Humans can use without issue
  • Insult of Endearment: Joe calls Skippy "beer can", while Skippy refers to Joe and the rest of the Merry Pirates as "smelly monkeys" or "dumb dumb" for Joe specifically. When Skippy merely calls Joe "human", it's a very bad sign that something is wrong.
  • Irony: Skippy thanks Bishop for teaching him the value of empathy right before he abandons Bishop and the rest of the Merry Band of Pirates to their likely deaths from hostile alien forces. Thankfully he regrets this decision and comes back for his friends
  • Klingon Scientists Get No Respect: The warrior caste running the Kristang doesn't value any technology that doesn't directly contribute to the war effort.
  • La Résistance:
    • The Merry Band of Pirates initially acts in resistance to the de-facto rule over Earth at the time.
    • True Kristang (Verd-Kris) oppose and resist the tyrannical rule of the Kristang military caste.
  • Little Green Men: The Thuranin.
  • Low Culture, High Tech: For the mission to oversee the forced evacuation of the planet Paradise, the Kristang outfit and train the soldiers of UNEF to use their Kristang gear. UNEF learns how to use the gear, but has no idea what makes any of it tick.
    • Later, the Merry Band of Pirates gets access to more advanced Thuranin technology through Skippy. As Skippy is fond of frequently reminding them though, they don't even have the theoretical basis to understand a Thuranin doorknob.note 
  • Mechanical Abomination: the Sentinels, Elder machines that occupy multiple layers of space-time and emerge into the local layer of space-time to prevent anyone from messing with Elder technology.
  • Multistage Teleport: Ships with jump drives almost always require the use of multiple jumps to get anywhere useful.
  • Mutually Assured Destruction: The Rindhalu and the Maxholx each have an arsenal of Elder weapons which, if triggered, would bring about the utter annihilation of galactic civilization.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The current year is never mentioned, but it's clear it essentially takes place in the present (albeit one where aliens suddenly appear and thrust Earth in the middle of an interstellar war).
    • There are also repeated references to recent US military action in Nigeria, which many of the main characters were involved in. Obviously, this has not in real life.
  • No Biochemical Barriers: While not every species is compatible with every biosphere and often has to bring its own food, every species is generally able to walk around in the open air of any habitable planet.
  • No Such Thing as Space Jesus: Despite his god-like powers and his constant requests for him to be worshiped as though he were a god, absolutely no one actually considers Skippy to be anything close to one. Reactions vary from calling him an asshole to attempting to take a dump in his canister.
  • No Warping Zone:
    • Ships are able to project damping fields to prevent enemy ships from escaping. The Rindhalu can do one better and prevent ships from jumping to a location. Most species can project a damping field out to a distance measured in light-seconds or light-minutes, while the Elders are able to construct damping fields that cover an entire solar system.
    • Ships can't form jump wormholes if they're too deep into a gravity well, with the viable minimum jump altitude depending on the ship's technology level.
  • Portal Cut: In book 8, the Merry Band of Pirates invoke this trope to render three Maxolhx cruisers combat-ineffective while leaving the bulk of their parts intact, allowing them to put together the pieces to create a working combat vessel.
  • Portal Network: The Elders built and left behind a deep space wormhole network which is used as the primary form of long-distance Faster Than Light travel throughout the galaxy. The functionality of the wormholes is intricate and generally designed to prevent abuse of the system.
  • Precursors: The oldest known species in the galaxy, known as the Elders, have mysteriously disappeared and left behind remnant facilities and technologies.
  • Puny Earthlings: Even the least advanced star-faring species have cool genetic modifications and advanced technology that humanity can only dream of... and the more advanced species in the Forever War have technology even beyond that.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: After nine books of insulting Joe and the Merry Band with names like "smelly monkey", Skippy clinically calls Joe "human". It's a very bad sign that Skippy has begun to stop caring about humans.
  • Quest for Identity: Skippy’s main motivation is figuring out who he was before he got buried in the dirt on Paradise. This drive has led him to make some very questionable decisions on several occasions.
  • Rock Beats Laser: The Merry Band of Pirates has the super-advanced abilities of Skippy and a small armory of alien weapons at its disposal, but their technological advantages end there. Humanity is consistently outgunned, outnumbered, and out-teched, but are almost always able to prevail through the use of inventive thinking.
  • Screw You, Elves!: The humans in the Merry Band of Pirates (and Joe in particular) frequently call out Skippy for his arrogance, especially when his arrogance jeopardizes the mission.
  • Space Cold War: Because the Rindhalu and the Maxholx can't fight each other without leading to a Lensman Arms Race and triggering Mutually Assured Destruction, they instead manipulate their client species into fighting proxy wars on their behalfs. At the end of Book 10, Humanity joins the party when the Merry Band of Pirates uncover their own stash of Elder weapons.
  • Standard Starship Scuffle: (Deconstructed / Discussed / Conversed) Faster-Than-Light Travel notwithstanding, Space Combat Maneuvering is otherwise largely treated from a hard-scifi standpoint and described in great detail, with long ranges, stealth, orbital mechanics, acceleration effects, and light delays. It is indeed repeatedly discussed between characters that it "doesn't work like on TV" when an unrealistic "Hollywood-style" tactic is suggested.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Aliens: Skippy regularly plays with the rules of space-time in a way that is beyond the understanding of even the most advanced species currently in the galaxy.
  • Superior Species: Apart from every species in the galaxy in general being superior to humanity in every way, there is also a hierarchical chain of superiority. At the top of the chain are the Rindhalu and the Maxolhx. The Maxolhx have the Thuranin and Bosphoraq as clients, and the Thuranin in turn have the Kristang as clients.
  • Technology Levels: The combatants of the Forever War are generally restricted by an unspoken rule to only fighting other species at a roughly equivalent technology level. The Rindalhu and Maxolhx are at the top of the pyramid, with the Jeraptha, Thuranin, and Bosphuraq and the next level below, and the Ruhar, Kristang, and Wurgalan at a level below that. Humans and other pre-starfaring species are at the bottom of the ladder, and anything Elder-related is way at the top.
    • It's also stated that technology levels are actually enforced from the top down. Any species who starts to get a bit too technically capable gets smacked down by their patrons. The Maxholx doing so directly with force, the Rindhalu more subtly.
  • Tele-Frag: Mostly averted. The laws of jump physics make creating a jump entry or exit point on top of a physical object something akin to trying to stab a grape with a spoon. Skippy is, in fact, awesome enough to pull it off once Joe gives him the idea to try it.
  • Teleport Interdiction: Most of Joe Bishop’s strategies for guerrilla warfare against the rest of the galaxy involve using and abusing Skippy’s powers to mess with how jump drives and wormholes function, starting with making a Thuranin star carrier jump a third of a light year off course to isolate it from the rest of its fleet and make it easier to hijack.
    • Jump tracing and interdiction are a core part of standard inter-ship combat. Setting up an ambush or a defensive zone usually involves projecting damping fields that allow ships to jump in, but not out of an area - or at least, not without significant damage or leaving a trail so dirty that anyone who cares to look could follow it.
  • Vichy Earth: Common strategy by conquering species, partly for the reason of adhering to Technology Levels, but mainly general distaste for interacting with lower species, is to install collaborative local puppet governments. Human leaders on both Earth and the alien planet Gethanu (known to humanity as Paradise) are effectively blackmailed into atrocious collaboration with their Kristang conquerors.
  • Wham Episode: Book 9, Valkyrie, ends with Skippy regaining his memories as a rebel AI against the Elder's plan to exterminate all sentient life in the galaxy. He concludes that wasting his time with lowly humans is no longer practical to the long term survival of the galaxy, and abandons Bishop and the rest of the Merry Pirates to hostile forces. He comes back to them to help rescue Joe from the Thuranin and Kristang in Book 10: Critical Mass.
  • Weaponized Teleportation: One of the Pirates' most effective tricks is subverting an enemy's jump drive system and jumping their ship into a planet, or otherwise subverting jump drive safety features or common wisdom.
  • You Can't Thwart Stage One: Bishop frequently discusses and exploits a neutral version of this trope - a plan in motion tends to stay in motion. More prosaically, the Merry Band of Pirates comes up against the traditional version of this trope in Book 8 when their attempts to get the Maxolhx to cancel an investigative trip to Earth end up failing because the Maxolhx are simply too stubborn and proud to cancel the mission even when their coalition is weakened.
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