Weston Ochse can really write. He begins Grunt Traitor with Mason hip-deep in shit— not in alligators or crocodiles but in dead bodies. Some of those bodies belong to the alien Cray. Some are human. One of those bodies may belong to Mason’s girlfriend Michelle. Has Michelle been captured by the Cray? Or has she disappeared as part of Mr. Pink’s nefarious plans to stop the aliens at all costs? Though still alive, Michelle begs Mason to kill her. Killmekillmelillmekillmekillme, she says. Her plea does a number on Mason’s mind. It’s almost as if Michelle has somehow gotten inside Mason’s mind as well as under his skin.
Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa was the battleground in Grunt Life. Los Angeles and Fort Irwin, both in California, are the battlegrounds in Grunt Traitor. Other alien life forms have now joined the Cray, and they all serve the alien Master. Grunt Traitor is full of surprises, as characters double-and-triple-cross each other and new alliances are formed.
The action is so real you can taste it because Ochse knows what it’s like to be a grunt in combat. Weston Ochse can describe a grunt’s feelings perfectly in first-person POV. Battle is battle, and the horrors and confusion of the battlefield haven’t changed much over the years. Whether you served in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, or near-future battles with the Cray, you’ve seen bodies blown apart. These days, that gives you what shrinks call PTSD, better known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD develops in virtually all humans after prolonged periods of stress punctuated with severe traumatic incidents such as personal bodily injury or witnessing death close up. Not only do victims of violence get PTSD, first-responders get PTSD. All combat soldiers develop some form of PTSD. PTSD is especially potent when friends and colleagues die while you inexplicably survive. If you’ve seen a loved one suddenly die right in front of your eyes, you likely have PTSD, too.
I’ve written before about the Magic Number 7 plus or minus two. Human beings can experience seven, give or take one or two, different stimuli simultaneously. More than that can and does cause parts of the brain to overload and shut down. When I was a practicing hypnotist and hypnotism instructor, I deliberately created sensory overloads to cause subjects to retreat into trance. I won’t go into details in a public forum, but suffice it to say that both overload and instant “shock” inductions can leave permanent imprints in the human brain. Stage hypnotists exploit those imprints to make subjects quack like a duck or bark like a dog. Sensory overload partitions the brain so the left hand doesn’t recognize what the right hand is doing. If the hypnotist neglects to remove those imprints, the subject will automatically reenter trance each and every time an anchor is triggered.
PTSD works the same way as sensory overload or a shock induction. It sets an anchor that fires—much like a loaded gun—whenever a trigger is touched.
American soldiers have this foolish notion that you should never leave one of your own troops—either living or dead—behind. We agonize over missing POWs. We organize special rescue ops to go behind enemy lines. We’re willing to risk an entire battalion to rescue one man. As a last resort, the quartermaster sends in graves registration people after the fact to collect dog tags and DNA. We honor the memory of those who fall in battle. It’s the least we can do.
The living aren’t always quite so fortunate, nor are those who die—either of wounds sustained in battle or by their own hand—after the battle’s over. Grunts are always expendable. In the old days, grunts were called cannon fodder. In the near future, grunts may be called humanity’s best and last hope.
All members of Task Force OMBRA are combat vets suffering PTSD. Most, like Mason and Michelle, have attempted suicide at least once to stop unbearable flashbacks from the past. Ochse is a genius to use a flashback to open Grunt Traitor. Not only does this flashback place the reader immediately into the middle of the action, it provides a brilliant way to sneak in backstory from Grunt Life. Flashbacks are a fact of life, especially for grunts.. Learn to live with ‘em, soldier.
What makes Grunt Traitor so compelling—besides the great characterizations, non-stop action, and complex plot—is the realization that something like this could actually happen in real life. Because we know so little about aliens and their motivations and methods, we humans are at a great disadvantage. Wouldn’t we be like blind men trying to describe an elephant when aliens make first contact? Aliens are, by definition, different than us. Isn’t that what makes them alien? Aliens are not human. We shouldn’t think of aliens as human. Should we?
It’s obvious Ochse has given great thought to what makes something alien. It’s also obvious he has read widely in SF and horror literature and he’s viewed most of the relevant films. He makes frequent tribute to writers and filmmakers who have been there before him.
What makes Grunt Traitor extra special, though, is this is a novel about second chances. Mason and Michelle were given second chances after attempting suicide. Phil, Mother’s nephew, was given a second chance. Even Thompson and Michelle got second chances .Would humanity have a second chance to survive in an alien-occupied terraformed world? You’ll need to read Grunt Traitor and its sequels to find out.
In my humble opinion, the best fiction is always a cautionary tale that teaches survival skills—skills we can learn nowhere else. Grunt Traitor is a survival tool like the books and movies OMBRA grunts studied during Phase I training. Think of Grunt Life and Grunt Traitor as Survival, Evasion, and Escape field manuals (FM 21-76) for winning a war with alien invaders.
Grunt Traitor is a great read.