Von Neumann’s War (2006) is a standalone SF novel (although the book – Neighborhood Watch – Final Report does serve as a prequel of sorts). It takes place in an alternate timeline where Mars probes have failed to land on the red planet on a regular basis due to an alien invasion of the planet. Mars has also been losing albedo and turning gray.

In this novel, Roger Reynolds is a believer in off-the-shelf design. For his high school’s science fair, Roger designed and constructed a sounding rocket made out of old parts and ordinary materials. He went on to win a first in category at the International Science and Engineering Fair, receiving a scholarship and a job at NASA for his efforts. Later, he joins a defense contractor firm and works on classified projects.

The National Security Council discusses the changes in Mars and decides to send a reconnaissance satellite to check it out. Fortunately, Roger and his friends have prepared a plan for a flyby mission to Mars. He presents this plan to the Director of Advanced Science and Technology at the National Reconnaissance Office shortly after the NSC meeting and the Director passes this information on to the President.

Traci is a waitress and a graduate student in astrophysics at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. She confirms the Mars albedo change. She gradually learns more about the general background on the problem while on the job at Hooters.

Captain Shane Gries, AUS, was a company commander in Iraq, with Thomas Cady as his First Sergeant. After his combat tour, he was assigned to the Pentagon to evaluate new technology. Naturally, most of the ideas were premature, irrelevant or worthless, but some had definite possibilities.

Megiddo is a renegade scientist and totally paranoid. He is hiding from the government because he knows too much. One of his hobbies is calling in to Ret Ball, The Truth Nationwide Show (btw this show is obviously coast-to-coast radio which is a great station to listen to if you’re up late at night!). Although he has a few bats in his belfry, he is also able to see the obvious and come to a more or less correct conclusion.

In this story, Roger’s company is given a huge contract to administer the Neighborhood Watch project. The project mission is to develop, launch and monitor a recon probe to Mars. They start out by inviting everybody that might be useful to a big meeting in Huntsville.

Roger hires Traci into Neighborhood Watch. She might have become a security risk, but she also makes a valuable employee. Besides, she already knows the background and needs little briefing on her duties.

Major Gries also joins Neighborhood Watch. His background is ideal for the job of evaluating and countering the alien capabilities. Of course, he gets Cady assigned as his assistant.

This story includes the recon flyby of Mars and more. The interplay of characters — from rocket scientists to teenage girls — is very interesting in itself. The way that ideas emerge from very divergent sources is much closer to reality than the current corporate approach.

Although the book jacket doesn’t say anything about mechanicals, the name of the novel obviously refers to Von Neumann devices. One way of exploring space is the use of self-replicating robots. As Von Neumann indicated, such an approach would flood the galaxy with these machines within a few million years. So where are they? Mars, of course!

Apparently this book will not have any sequels. The conclusion leaves little room for further development. Still, the whole scenario is just too good to drop. Anyway, enjoy yourself.

Highly recommended for Ringo & Taylor fans and for anyone else who enjoys tales of space vehicle development, alien technology, and clever people

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