The Big Idea: Craig Alanson

It is, in simplest terms, our humanity which makes us human. But what’s in our humanity that makes it tick? New York Times best-selling author Craig Alanson gets into that, in his Big Idea for the latest novel in his Expeditionary Force series, Breakaway.


What’s funny about an alien invasion?

The notion that we might survive one, without a lot of outside help.

Many people who read/listen to my books, might be surprised that there is a Big Idea behind my writing. Wait, they might say, aren’t your books all about snarkasm?

Yes and no. Humor is the means I use to convey a Big Idea.

The Big Idea behind the first book in my Expeditionary Force series, came from watching fun but ridiculous “plucky band of humans with rifles/laptops defeat alien invasion” movies like Independence Day and Battle: Los Angeles. Those movies are certainly fun, and it’s great to fist-pump when the alien bad guys get the beat-down from righteous humans. But, Dude, get real. Any alien species capable of crossing the vast gulf between stars will have technology capable of squashing us like bugs. Their ships can park comfortably in orbit, and simply drop rocks on our stupid heads. Or use nukes, or whatever Death Ray the lowest-bidder defense contractor equipped their starships with. If we try to send a nuke up to attack the aliens, they will have plenty of time to target and destroy the bright, hot-burning rocket pushing that nuke up the steep hill into orbit. 

Wait! You might say. OK, aliens have invincible technology. But we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds- No, wait. That was a different war. After an alien invasion, we shall hide out in the hills, or caves, or abandoned dollar stores, and humanity will survive to fight on!

Uh, well, maybe? Until, you know, the aliens flood the lower atmosphere with nerve gas, or genetically-engineered superviruses, or killer nanobots.

I chose Columbus Day as the title of the first book in my Expeditionary Force series, to make the point that an encounter with advanced aliens will be as traumatic for all humans as the encounter with Christopher Columbus was for the peoples of the Americas in 1492. 

OK, so I had a Big Idea. How could I write an alien invasion story about it? Must it be totally gloomy and hopeless?


We can get by with a little help from our friends. Maybe there will be aliens who question whether conquering and exploiting another culture is really a good idea. But I’m not counting on it. Given the enormous effort required to travel between stars, the shareholders back on the alien homeworld will want a solid return on their investment.

How, then, could we be useful to aliens, so we don’t get bulldozed to make way for a luxury housing development aliens will build on the rubble of our civilization (with a pretentious name like ‘Tranquility Estates’)? A story where humans go offworld to fight as mercenaries has been done many times, so I add a twist. In Columbus Day, human soldiers do go offworld to fight, only to discover too late that our new ‘allies’ are the real bad guys, and our troops are stranded thousands of lightyears from home. That’s when it gets complicated.

Being at the bottom of the technology ladder, what can we offer advanced aliens other than boots on the ground, since we have no hope of surviving without outside help?

Friendship. Loyalty. A sense that no one has to be alone in an uncaring universe. It is our humanity, for lack of a better word, that is our best asset. Even a desperately lonely, immensely powerful and immensely clueless alien AI can find a friend, after a whole lot of swiping left on one species after another. Our history shows it is easier to demonize and dehumanize ‘them’ when ‘they’ are a faceless group, but harder when the ‘they’ is one person, asking for help. Or just asking for mercy. A friendship, between one human and one alien, is a good start.

Yes, my books tend to have a lot of snarkastic humor, in between the furious space battles and tense special ops missions. Using humor to convey a Big Idea doesn’t make that idea any less serious. It may allow that Big Idea to reach a broader audience.

So, you now know one way to survive an alien invasion. Make a friend. You’re welcome. If aliens do invade, let me know how it works.

I’ll be hiding in my garage.

Breakaway: Amazon|Podium 

Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

8 Comments on “The Big Idea: Craig Alanson”

  1. This is something I’ve really appreciated about this book series. The story is played pretty straight through the first half of the first book, and then you get upended and the whole series takes off in a different direction.

    And the message is pretty spot on: Anyone that could bring a big interstellar fleet to Earth could smash us whenever they wanted, so an actual confrontation is pretty much off the table. So what do you do about that? And how do you get the allies you’d need to make your various plans work?

    It ends up boiling down to an interesting mix of friendship and deception, as well as the realization that the two major factions just aren’t friends of Earth and can’t be – even the “good ones”. Individuals sure, but not the factions themselves.

  2. Interesting subject. The standard operating procedure of Earth governments would be ineffective against an alien invasion. Just our politics would prevent a useful response.

    But the real question is “why would aliens want to invade Earth?” Given the vast distance and the energy needed to cover that distance, there is probably nothing on earth worth the effort. You brought up human mercenaries, and that might be useful if aliens can’t fight or won’t fight by themselves. Maybe they have tried an invasion elsewhere and are losing the battle?

    Humans are good slave labor. But we are so full of diseases that contact with is real problematic and in War of the Worlds. So colonizing us is a problem. If you kill everybody, the Earth by itself is not of much value. Could they have weapons of mass destruction? Sure, but they would have had to lug that mass many light years. So an invasion would mostly be diplomatic and under the table, I think.

    But I don’t know if that would make a fun story.

  3. You mean you will hide out in the garage your wife cleaned out for you… 😁

  4. Perhaps we will have something in common with the invaders, an ancestor we can all relate to regardless of what earth species they resemble Hampsters, lizards, beetles, squids, spiders, cats, lobsters… Maybe galactic panspermia (like in Weir’s explanation in Project Hail Mary), or maybe some ancient race built wormholes to spread the seed of life to ideal life supporting spots so they wouldn’t be so lonely until the finally find out they aren’t alone. When invading aliens come to Earth and find out we’re all cousins and our home life is awesome, and get stuck in a trance consuming reruns of Friends and think there is a hidden message within the algorithm-like laughing sequences that seems so off. Ha.

  5. I like this series and the ones associated with it. I don’t consider it Scalzi level prose but it is good hard/military science fiction. I chug right through them; sometimes even staying up too late in order to finish. Certainly worth the time.

  6. Well this almost discribes one of David Weber earlier works: “The Excalibur Alternative”
    While the Humans there are from the middle ages the conclusion is the same…..

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