Alien Game by Rod Walker

Last summer I reviewed a little book with the unassuming title of Mutiny in Space. Left to my own devices, I usually pick up books with big, grandiose titles like The Vindication of Man or The Big Event of Cosmic Importance with a Thing That Sounds All Powerful. Mutinies are all fine and good, but they don’t tend to be the main draw for me. It’d be like offering me a big, heaping bowl of corn. It’s great, sure. But where’s my fraggin’ steak?

And then Mutiny in Space turned out to be really, really good. If mutinies are corn, Mutiny in Space is that awesome Mexican corn where they spread mayo all over it and spicy chili powder and cheese and lime juice and I’m just going to stop now….

Anyways, Mutiny in Space turned out to be so much fun, and so spot-on with the Heinlein juvenile feel that I couldn’t even complain about the title, because that’s the sort of title things had when Heinlein was writing his juveniles. (The Star Beast? Star beasts are fine, but they’re a side dish.) So I was really pretty excited to visit Walker’s work again when I was sent a copy of Alien Game for review. So how’d it stack up?

Alien Game, like Mutiny in Space, is a Heinlein juvenile-esque adventure. Sam Hammond is an orphan living and working on his uncle Morgan’s farm on New Princeton, a planet that seems to have been a former capitalist paradise, now gone to government seed. His farm work– one of the last privately owned farms on the planet– nicely positions him to rescue Mr. Royale,  a successful-but-stranded-by-a-broken-down-car entrepreneur, from a ravening pack of fangwolves. Impressed both by Sam’s skill with a hunting rifle (Used to make the fangwolves less ravening and more dead) and Sam’s knowledge, to say nothing of his work ethic, he offers Sam a job.

Initially, Sam works as a repairman for Mr. Royale, keeping the KwikBreet burrito vending machines that are Mr. Royale’s bread and butter in working order. But after falling in love with the spoiled daughter of an EcoMin official, Sam makes a few bad choices, and, next thing you know, he’s in trouble with the law. Fortunately for our hero, Mr. Royale is fond of Sam and manages to get his sentence changed from jail time to a year and a half of indentured servitude– and under Mr. Royale’s employ, no less.

As it turns out, Mr. Royale had actually hired Sam with more in mind than KwikBreet machine repair anyways. Mr. Royale is a major investor in a safari company on the planet Arborea, a heavily forested world full of very large, very dangerous game, perfect for well-heeled rich folks to come and have a nice, relaxing vacation hunting. Too bad there’s constant sabotage afoot– which is why Sam is now bound for Arborea– and something more dangerous besides….

If you happened to love Mutiny in Space the way I did, you’re going to have a lot going on for you here in Alien Game. Walker’s very skilled at hitting the right notes here, and everything that worked in Mutiny in Space works in Alien Game. Adventure? Check. Likable protagonists? Check. Loathsome villains? Check.  Slightly tongue in cheek extrapolations of current political trends? Check.

The one place where Alien Game diverges from Mutiny in Space is that I actually have criticism. Two books in to Walker’s work, and I’ve cheerfully discovered something to gripe about: Alien Game recaptures Mutiny in Space too thoroughly, I think. The two books are very close siblings of each other: a young orphan who is just a few years of experience away from being a Heinlein-esque Competent Man hero, surrounded by secondary characters that any Heinlein character would be perfectly happy to work alongside, facing off against overbearing and unscrupulous authority.

Now, two books in the same vein is hardly something to complain about, but if you keep it up, you run the risk of becoming formulaic. I’ll cheerfully hand Rod Walker the Heinlein mantle that Scalzi, once upon a time, looked poised to don. (Back in the Old Man’s War days, before Scalzi started running his mouth and turned into the Wil Wheaton of novelists.) But I’d really like to see Mr. Walker mix it up a bit. Alien Game and Mutiny in Space give us maybe four of the Thousand Worlds setting– plenty of room for a bit of variety. Let’s see a Have Spacesuit, Will Travel or even a Starship Troopers here and there.

Joshua M. Young is  a seminary student, Castalia House author (featured in God, Robot and author of the forthcoming Do Buddhas Dream of Enlightened Sheep) and blogger at Superversivesf.com. He can be reached on Gab.ai @BadgerSensei. If you enjoyed this, we’d love to have you visit our main site!