John Scalzi: The Last Colony

Review of the novel The Last Colony, by John Scalzi.

  • The Last Colony

    • by John Scalzi
    • HC, © 2007, 320 pp, Tor Books, ISBN 0-765-31697-8

I observed when reviewing Alastair Reynolds’ The Prefect that Reynolds’ writing style is to make the reader wait for the next shoe to drop. Scalzi’s style is also of that sort, but with a different twist: Reynolds’ stories make you wonder, “What awful thing is going to happen to our characters next?”, while Scalzi’s is to make you wonder, “What’s he up to?” In a sense, Reynolds’ stories are about the ramifications of characters pursuing their agendas, while Scalzi’s are about the characters’ agendas themselves and how those agendas reflect the characters and vice-versa.

I digress in this way because it’s difficult to summarize the plot of The Last Colony without giving away some of the plot, because a lot of the fun of a Scalzi novel is when someone shows up and characters engage in some witty banter while you’re wondering “What’s he up to?”, and then you find out, and someone gets pissed off.

So if you don’t want any of the surprises at all spoiled for you, I’ll simply say that if you enjoyed Scalzi’s first two novels in the Old Man’s War series (which I’ve reviewed previously), then you’ll enjoy this one just as much.

So, onwards:

The Last Colony opens with John Perry (the protagonist of Old Man’s War) and Jane Sagan (a supporting character in both OMW and The Ghost Brigades) living on a colony with their adopted daughter Zoë (also from TGB), when one of Perry’s former commanders comes to ask if they’d be willing to oversee a new colony, one being colonized by people from other colonies, rather than from Earth as is the norm. Reluctantly, they agree to take the job.

When the colonists arrive at Roanoke, however, they find that not only is it not the planet they’d thought it was, but that they’re being used by the Colonial Union as pawns: Hundreds of alien races have allied in a group called the Conclave. Recall that in the universe of OMW aliens are all constantly fighting for colony space, so races working together is rare, and on this scale, it’s unprecedented. The Conclave seeks to forge peace by prohibiting colonies by races who aren’t in the conclave (which includes humans), and regulating colonies by members. It’s a lofty goal, but prohibition means “exterminating any colony founded since the Conclave pact was signed if they refuse to leave on their own”. Roanoke is such a colony, and it’s being carefully hidden in the CU’s resistance to the Conclave. So John, Jane, and company have to rough it on a world not-well-explored, worrying if a fleet of ships is going to appear above them at any moment.

And that’s just the first third (or so) of the book.

The Last Colony is about truth and lies, trust and betrayal, and doing the right thing in the face of dire consequences. John is frequently lied to (usually by omission), but bonds of trust between people who deal with each other honorably prove to be the means to solve many of the problems he faces. There’s a lot of “what goes around, comes around” in this book. John doesn’t quite escape without getting his hands dirty, but he does go out of his way to behave honorably towards people he feels deserve it (and even a few he doesn’t). He tries to keep the high ground, but he also tries to be prepared if his more honorable efforts don’t work out.

The overarching theme of the book is one of trust in individuals versus trust in one’s leaders; where does one’s loyalties lie? Can you be a patriot when your nation theatens you and your family for its own greater good? As the colony leader, John works from both positions: He deals with his own superiors, with leaders of other factions, with threats to his own position from within the colony, and with his relationship with the colonists. Even when his own government misleads or lies to him, individuals within that government try to aid him to the extent that they can. There’s a lot of balancing the good of the few against the good of the many. Scalzi does a great job of winding his way through many different tensions of this sort, taking the story to a satisfying conclusion without necessarily drawing any final answers about the larger subjects. Ultimately, these issues tend to depend on the situation anyway; context matters.

As always, Scalzi’s writing is punchy, fast-paced, and funny. The cutting quip and sardonic comeback are his stock-in-trade. Occasionally he perhaps plays a little too fast-and-loose with his subjects: The CU’s plan to battle the Conclave seemed a little too convenient, and a supporting character dies in the final battle in an off-handed manner that felt too casual. These are small complaints, though; demanding that every detail be fully fleshed out isn’t entirely reasonable.

Although the series is not high on the technological ideas index, it is great fun to read, thought-provoking and exciting. Scalzi may write more stories in the OMW universe, but this little trilogy stands on its own as well worth reading regardless of what comes after.

(For what it’s worth, I think The Ghost Brigades is the best of the three.)

2 thoughts on “John Scalzi: The Last Colony”

  1. I just finished that on Tuesday – I also rather liked it. The Ghost Brigades is also my favorite, and am not surprised that it’s yours – it feels the most science-fictiony of the three, for starters. (The CU trilogy has always seemed like character-driven adventure fiction with science-fiction trappings, in a lot of ways, and the science-fiction aspects seem best integrated in The Ghost Brigades. That’s not a knock, just an observation.)

    Fundamentally, they’re all pretty well-written, the characters aren’t cardboard, and he’s definitely got the sparse-writing-witty-dialog-fast-pace style down. It is at times too sparse/fast-paced for my taste, in that some things get glossed over when they really deserve more time, and certain details are provided via hand-waving and overly broad brush-strokes, but I agree with you that those are largely quibbles. (Although I can’t picture that the CDF wouldn’t even have a backup plan for the Conclave if their primary plan didn’t work out the way they wanted; the Colonial Union is riddled with factions. They surely have had the experience of presenting a plan, having their leaders pick the version that is mostly likely to fail but promises them what they want, and having to deal with the consequences; thinking about it after finishing the book I found that harder to swallow.)

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