This novel is based on the X-COM: UFO Defense video game from 1993. It does a good job of working in the parts of the game, like terror attacks, UFO interceptions, and research. It adds more to the game by bringing up the relationship between X-COM and local governments, personal relationships, and intelligence gathering.
Diane Duane created a story that could take place in the game. We don’t start at the beginning, and we don’t get to the end. We’re given a slice of what takes place during the game. It takes place sometime in the middle of any game.
I like this a lot! It reminds me of following the story of a few characters in a game that I started playing. I was excited to start reading this book, and I wish there were more stories about these characters.
The book follows Jonelle. She is our main character and the commander of an X-COM base constructed in Switzerland. We follow the construction of this base from scouting locations for the base to it being up and operational.
Along the way, a number of things happen that will be familiar to readers that have played the game. There is a terror attack, the name of a type of mission in the game where the aliens attack a city and other operations to shoot down UFOs. Diane also tells us about how an X-COM base is run.
Jonelle is commanding a base in Morocco. She describes what the state of that base was and how she was able to turn the base around. Because of her success in Morocco, she is being sent to Switzerland to build a new base.
A location is selected, and we hear about the cover that the world governments give X-COM. They are sent in with United Nations backstopping to hide the existence of X-COM. Reading about this and how it is worked into the story is very interesting.
How X-COM gets the money to do things is gone over as well. I found this part extremely interesting as it isn’t brought up in the game, but it is something I thought about recently. We don’t get much information about it, but we get Jonelle’s thoughts about the black market for alien corpses.
The base in Switzerland is built over the course of the book. While this is going on, Jonelle finds out about a large number of cattle abductions and mutilations. She requests that X-COM send an investigative team to find more information about this because it is her understanding that cattle abductions are down.
While this is going on, a pattern of UFO activity suggests that there is a spy in the Morocco base. An investigation is also started on this, and it leads to a bit of a twist. I’ll get more into that later.
The investigation into the cattle abductions leads to the location of an alien base in Switzerland. The book’s ending covers the attack on the enemy base and the attempted arrest of the spy. The alien base is destroyed, but the spy is able to escape.
We’re left with the secret war against the aliens continuing. Diane doesn’t give the reader a conclusion to the war but provides a look into parts of the game that have been wonderfully translated into a novel. It makes me wish this was part of a series that tracked Jonelle’s career to the end of the game.
The Building of a Twist
The reveal of the alien collaborator is the twist in this book. The book’s synopsis leads the reader to believe it might be Ari, but the story doesn’t suggest this. Trenchard is revealed to be the alien spy, and much of what he says gives himself away.
He is one of the scientists at the Morocco base, and he has a fascination with the Ethereals, a group of psychic aliens that seem to control the other aliens in the game. When the book starts, this seems like an odd quirk of his character. However, as the book goes on, it appears that he admires how the aliens have been able to adapt and evolve.
It is explained that Trenchard had been experimenting with combining alien and human DNA. He has been trying to turn himself into an Ethereal. It is one of the more interesting parts of the book as it shows the lengths some of the human collaborators would go to.
Jonelle tries to capture Trenchard by feeding him false information. However, this doesn’t work, and Trenchard is able to slip away to the aliens. His whereabouts are left up in the air, but it is an excellent part of the book as it expands on the video game’s lore.
Working in the Game’s Mechanics
Many of the mechanics of the game were incorporated into the story. You have the UFO interceptions, base construction, and terror sites. The weapons and equipment from the game are all worked into the book, and the ranking system of soldiers is also here. Even some things I didn’t think about until I went back to play the games are here.
Shooting down UFOs and selling off their equipment is talked about. In the game, it would be lost if you shot down a UFO over water. In the book, it is explained that doing this made retrieval impossible. While I find this ridiculous because they could get the UFO if they wanted to, it is nice to see an explanation for why you couldn’t retrieve it in the game.
X-COM’s relationships with local governments are explained in the book, and I think Diane does an excellent job of this. She doesn’t use the terminology I’m familiar with, but the ideas are all. X-COM has a public face as part of the United Nations. It explains why you can build a base anywhere on Earth, aside from underwater, in the game.
The different parts of the base are also explained. You can build base defenses and ways to monitor the aliens in the game. The book also explains these by focusing on the Mind Shield. This part of the base protects the people inside it from psychic attacks, and Jonelle prioritizes it for both bases in the book.
I like how she describes the Chrysalids. We’re told they’re the most dangerous part of an alien encounter. In the book, the chrysalids are accurately described as being extremely dangerous. Diane does an excellent job getting this point across.
This ties into a difference between the book and the game. In the book, X-COM encounters a bunch of alien types in each attack, including Chrysalids. Depending on the mission, you normally face one or two alien types in the game. This is a very nice change that builds up the danger, at least for me, as I came to this after playing the game.
I loved that things from the game were explained in the book. It made the story better than a generic science fiction book.
This is a wonderful book! You don’t need to know anything about the game before reading it. In this way, it reminds me of the Shadowkeep book I read a while ago.
X-COM: UFO Defense is a fun book about a war between humans and aliens. I like that we skip the beginning of X-COM, and only a few necessary parts are brought up to give the reader context. However, you can enjoy the book without knowing much about the game.
I liked how Diane jumped right into the war with the aliens. How the public face of X-COM is talked about and set up was great! Overall, this is a wonderful book, and I wish there were more stories about the 1990s X-COM games.