Genre fiction tends to come back around to the same sorts of themes and exploring them in (hopefully) new ways. All You Need is Kill fits somewhat loosely into what I would call the power-armor versus alien locust subgenre, and does it quite well. And also a cross with Groundhog Day. And something of an examination of video games. It’s got some flaws, but it’s fun poolside reading.
This is a subgenre that I’m pretty familiar with, and there are numerous examples over the years. There’s Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, with its story of the Mechanized Infantry against the alien bugs throughout the galaxy, and Haldeman’s Forever War, with a similar story from a different perspective. Lesser known is John Steakley’s Armor, which was written by a Texas native and which I’m actually quite fond of. And of course there are innumerable video games, comic books, tabletop games and other assorted media with armored space marines versus just about anything you can imagine.
But here we are in the near future, with the horrific Mimics having emerged from the oceans to kill all humans. Okay, maybe that’s unfair. They’re actually here to xenoform the Earth into a more hospitable environment for some alien colonists from the star system 55 Cancri. These unseen aliens are huge pricks, by the way, since they clearly considered the fact that their proposed colony world might be inhabited and sent the xenoforming probe anyway, without checking first. So the Mimics aren’t really evil, just robots. Or alien robots. You know what, we’ll just go with alien robot monsters. Got to be okay to destroy as many of those as you want. They’re probably not even intelligent, or at least not possessed of general intelligence. They do resent humanity’s interference with their objective, though, and have evolved nasty, armored battle forms to deal with it.
And it’s also indisputable that native Earth life can’t survive after the Mimics are done with whatever it is they’re doing, so if we want to live the Mimics have got to go. Which is why recruit Keiji Kiriya finds himself strapped into a Jacket (a powered armor suit) after his basic training and sent into battle against the Mimic horde. He manages to kill one in his first battle, but then quickly sustains a lethal injury. As he lays dying, he’s briefly comforted by one Rita Vrataski, the most highly decorated soldier in Earth’s defense forces, a woman who has single-handedly destroyed more than half of the total Mimics accounted for by Earth’s entire military, a woman who operates essentially outside military command and has carte blanche to do whatever she feels necessary in battle, someone who paints her power armor in primary colors so she stands out against the battlefield and everyone can tell she’s still alive. It’s probably an honor to die in such company, but still a bummer.
Then, the next day, Keiji wakes up the day before his first battle with some bad déjà vu, goes through his day, gets strapped into his Jacket, and is immediately shot dead by an unusually hostile Mimic.
On the third day, Keiji decides that this whole thing sucks and tries to desert. Only that doesn’t work out for him either. And after saying “screw this” and suicide don’t work, he figures that he might as well get serious about this whole war thing. Before too much longer he’s the most battle-hardened veteran in the whole defense force (aside from Rita), although as far as anyone else can tell he’s never been in battle before.
As it turns out, what’s going on here is that these asshole aliens who built the xenoforming machines have some other advanced technology as well. If some unexpected event – a losing battle, say – disrupts the Mimics as they go about their business, some of them have the ability to send a tachyon pulse backwards through time to warn their previous selves about what’s going to happen. Then the Mimics can pre-member the bad thing and avoid it, which is why it turns out to be so difficult to actually hit the bastards with air strikes and ambushes.
The one Mimic that Keiji killed the first time was one of these time-bending Mimics, and the resulting tachyon pulse worked on him as well. Like most time travel gimmicks this is obviously full of paradoxes; it’s left vague exactly how this works or whether there’s really any time travel at all involved. It seems most plausible that Keiji isn’t exactly time-traveling, but rather experiencing many possible futures before some horrendous wave function collapses and restores things to normal.
Now at this point you may be wondering how exactly we could beat alien robot monsters like the Mimics, with their protected undersea bases and absurd ability to pre-member attacks that haven’t even been performed yet, and their armored carapaces and built in 50 mm cannons. And the answer is that we couldn’t, we would be totally boned. But this is a light SF novel, so don’t worry about it – Rita and Keiji will be out there fighting on the beachhead all day long, and we’ll just assume that this will accomplish something. Somehow.
The very best power-armored-soldiers-versus-whatever novels haven’t exactly been about the armor, the monsters, or the versus. Starship Troopers was a showcase for some of Heinlein’s (controversial!) political themes. The Forever War discussed the absurdity and ultimate futility of armed conflict. And Armor delved into the psyche of someone who has to continually fight all the time. I wouldn’t put this one up there in the “great” tier, but it examines something fairly interesting to my mind – the inner life of a video game character.
Keiji isn’t literally in a video game, of course, but in games as a whole you often end up following a protagonist as he dodges every lethal trap, jumps every chasm, and kills hundreds if not thousands of enemies, all while taking little damage. Usually your allies are next to useless and your character is orders of magnitude more effective. And you probably either are ignoring orders or simply without them. Consider Gordon Freeman from Half-Life – a physicist who shows up to work and ends up fending off two alien invasions and the special forces of the US military, all at the same time. How could anyone do that? How is it even possible?
Well, it helps if they know what’s coming, that’s how. By the end of this mess, Keiji has become hardened both physically and mentally into something completely different. The reactions he gets from his teammates make sense, too. For someone to be that much better than everyone else doesn’t seem right, it’s not natural – and given the unnatural reason, that’s even sensible. This may be the most in-depth examination of what it might be like to be the hero of a first-person shooter that I’ve ever seen. Also, probably the only one.
I’m certainly not saying that it’s without flaws, because it isn’t. The plot doesn’t really hold up to anything more than cursory examination, entertaining as it might be. The characterization is nothing special, and while the English translation is more than adequate, I felt that we were probably missing some nuance and the prose itself was nothing special. Nonetheless, fun.
There’s a Hollywood adaptation of this coming out next month. In typical adaptation fashion, the role of the 20-year old Japanese recruit will be played by Tom Cruise. (I know he's got some range, but . . .) It’ll be interesting to see if they keep the essential core of the novel, or what other changes they’ll feel necessary.
Anyhow, if you have ever enjoyed a book about some people in powered armor fighting some horde of something of other, then this tale of how Keiji Kiriya learns how to kill thousands of robot alien monsters with a tungsten carbide axe will probably be right up your wheelhouse. If that doesn’t sound like something you’d like, then you’re probably right. Sometimes, simplicity in theme makes it easy to decide.