Space Relics

I recent finished reading John Scalzi‘s recent novel, The Consuming Fire, the second in his Interdependency trilogy. It’s quite good, and I agree with some comments I’ve read that although it starts slow, it ends up being a more satisfying read than the first volume. But what won me over fully to it is not the satisfying ending (which is about as satisfying an ending as the second book in a trilogy can have), but the bits in the middle.

(Spoilers for The Consuming Fire, as well as some other stories discussed below!)

The Interdependency in the series is a collection of worlds connected by wormholes, except that after millennia the wormholes start collapsing. Since most of the “worlds” are actually uninhabited – the population live on artificial satellites in orbit, and only one world is known to itself be habitable – this is a big problem, since the worlds can’t survive on their own. The fact of this collapse is a nascent scientific discovery which is not widely believed, but a major development in this book is that a wormhole which had collapsed centuries before has recently reopened for a limited period of time, and our heroes – in the form of the Emperox – send an expeditionary ship through to see what happened to the settlement there.

They break into the main satellite, which is predictably dead and dormant, and manage to reactivate some of the computer systems, whereupon they discover that they’re not the first ones to do so: The system had been reactivated several times since civilization collapsed, and our heroes figure out that not only is there a remnant of the centuries-dead civilization still hanging on, but that they had been visited from elsewhere during that time.

And I love this stuff. Stories about finding long-forgotten and long-dead remnants of past civilizations or even people whose stories ended tragically long before they were uncovered thrills me more than almost anything else in science fiction.

I was trying to think when my fascination with this sort of story started, and the earliest instance I can think of is the Space: 1999 episode “Dragon’s Domain”. Five years earlier, a probe to the recently-discovered tenth planet of the solar system ended in tragedy when it discovered a graveyard of alien ships. On docking with one of them, three of the four crew members are killed by a mysterious creature, and the fourth barely escapes and makes it back to Earth. In the present, he senses that the creature is nearby, and the Alphans find the same graveyard, many light years from Earth, and have a final showdown with the creature. As with most things in the series, the story doesn’t make much sense, but when I was six years old when it first aired in 1975, it made an indelible impression on me, enough that when I had the opportunity to buy a few episodes in the 90s, it was one of the two that I bought. (Yes, I was disappointed when I watched it.) It’s not even very satisfying in exploring the ships they find – we never get to see inside any of them – but somehow it was just enough to stimulate some part of my brain.

Somehow many Space: 1999 episodes are available in their entirety on YouTube, and I watched it before writing this post:

(I could write at some length about Space: 1999, basically that I think there is some good stuff in there that could have been used as the springboard for an actually good series, but it’s buried under so much nonsense and terrible writing that any good series would have been substantially different from what actually aired. But I digress.)

Another episode which tickled a similar part of my brain was “Another Time, Another Place”, in which the Alphans meet their doppelgängers from another universe who had recolonized the Earth, with mixed results. I haven’t re-watched that one, but I recall the exploration of the doppelgänger Alpha was pretty powerful. Again, to my six-year-old self.

Star Trek also had a little of this, though the memorable episodes involved finding derelict starships. “Space Seed”, “The Tholian Web”, and my all-time favorite episode, “The Doomsday Machine”, all feature these small-scale discoveries and piecing together what happened, although the main thrust of each episode heads in a somewhat different direction; the space relics are primarily part of the episodes’ color. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode actually entitled “Relics” features an ancient Dyson sphere, but it’s really about Scotty coming to the 24th century. And the Star Trek: Enterprise story “In a Mirror, Darkly” is a sequel to “The Tholian Web”, but it’s really a love letter to original series fans.

The movie Alien starts off with the characters exploring a derelict alien hulk, and although the film is overall excellent (and I am not a fan of horror films generally), plumbing the depths of the hulk is not the point of the film.

So with all of these TV shows and movies teasing me with glimpses of old relics that don’t really get explored, what really got me hooked on this stuff? Well, it was a book titled Spacewreck: Ghostships and Derelicts of Space which was part of a series of art books from the late 70s about the fictional Terran Trade Authority. Set over the next thousand years or so, the book is a collection of short stories with corresponding illustration (I inferred that the illustration was done first and the story written to more-or-less match it, but I really have no idea) about spaceships which had been lost and later found abandoned, or maybe just found without anyone knowing where they came from (e.g., alien ships). Mary Celeste-type stuff. It was not great literature, but I read through it several times as a teenager, fascinated by the stories with their sometimes-oblique tragedies of years long past, buried more by obscurity than by intent.

I think that’s part of what appeals to me about such stories: Unlike typical mysteries, in which there’s a perpetrator who is deliberately trying to conceal the truth, in these stories the truth has been lost due to the ravages of time, or due to something simply dropping out of sight, or becoming inaccessible. There may have been some corresponding or causal tragedy to the mystery – that’s sometimes where the story comes from – but I find the peeling back of the layers, and the revelation of what happened to the long-dead people to be the part of the tale that grabs my imagination.

And that brings me to what, to my knowledge, is the preeminent example of this sort of story: Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict series.

Alex Benedict is an antiquities dealer who inherited money from his anthropologist uncle after he was lost in space, and set up his own business. In the first book, A Talent For War (1989) – which is one of my favorite novels – he investigates the disappearance of a crew of heroes who helped end the war against the only known alien species in the galaxy. As a group of legendary officers, the crew lightly evokes the crew of the original Star Trek, but all of them are two centuries dead. The story has some good twists and turns, and a solid ending. It was probably the most satisfying story of its sort I’d read up to this point – it might still be at the top.

To my delight, McDevitt turned this novel into a series, with 9 millennia of backstory for his characters to explore:

  • Polaris (2004): An auction of relics from a ship whose crew disappeared under impossible circumstances unfolds the mystery of what really happened to them.
  • Seeker (2005): A lone cup unlocks the mystery to the location of one of the earliest colony ships from Earth, nearly 9,000 years earlier. This one won the Nebula Award for Best Novel.
  • The Devil’s Eye (2008): A mind-wiped friend of Alex’s is the clue to a government cover-up and a lost colony. The series’ nadir in my opinion.
  • Echo (2010): A deceased scientist known for searching for other intelligent life beyond humans and the one other species we’ve encountered found something. But if he found aliens, why did he bury the news?
  • Firebird (2011): Another deceased scientist who was known for researching parallel universes also found something. What he found is very different from the story in Echo, and is perhaps the most arresting storyline of the series, and very much on-theme for this article – but I won’t reveal it here because I definitely recommend reading it yourself. It’s concluded in the next novel…
  • Coming Home (2014): In addition to the continued story from Firebird, Alex is presented with a relic from the earliest days of humanity’s space age, and he heads to Earth in search of its origin.

Coming Home seemed like a perfect ending to the series, and it was hard to see how McDevitt would top it, but apparently there will be a new volume, Octavia Gone, published next year.

Despite my fondness for the series, I do caution readers to temper their expectations: McDevitt is clearly influenced by the SF Golden Age grandmasters such as Asimov and Clarke, which means his writing can be a bit dry. He also has a decidedly clumsy approach to writing women, which is doubly unfortunate since after Talent – narrated by Alex – the remaining books are narrated by his assistant and pilot, Chase Kolpath. Chase is a pretty capable figure, but there are many cringeworthy turns of phrase involving her gender. So I’d expect some people would find the writing would cancel out the good qualities of the story, but if you can get past its limitations perhaps you’ll enjoy it. Unfortunately in such a limited niche, it’s nearly impossible to have it all.

By the way, an earlier McDevitt novel, Ancient Shores (1996), has some moments that resonated for me in this way – humanity discovers an abandoned network of portals to other worlds – although the main thrust of the story lies elsewhere. I suggest skipping the disappointing sequel, Thunderbird (2015), however.

I’m sure there are other stories I’m forgetting about, but those are the major ones. I wish more writers would play in this space (though I’m not so willing to sit through dozens of episodes of bad television for the occasional story of this sort), but I take what I can get.

Are there any notable stories in this vein that I should check out?


A friend’s comment on Facebook reminded me that I wanted to mention a couple of similar tropes which I see as different from the trope that interests me here:

First are Big Dumb Objects, unfathomable artifacts from ancient civilizations. Stories around these tend to fall into two camps: Either people trying to figure out what they’re used for and eventually reactivating them (usually to disappointing effect, since the payoff is rarely satisfying after the build-up), or as something which trigger the story but isn’t central to how it plays out (for example in Alastair Reynolds’ novella Diamond Dogs). While I can enjoy these stories, they different from the trope I’m discussing here because they’re fundamentally more impersonal; there’s little speculation in or resolution of what happened to the specific characters who left behind the BDO, it’s just a driver for the main characters’ story.

Second are ancient and dead civilizations, which again tend to be impersonal, the discovery of vast swaths of culture and/or technology rather than the story of a specific relic left behind. Star Trek worked this territory a lot, usually encountering the degenerate remnants of such civilizations, though occasionally they found completely dead ones, such as in “Contagion”. “The Inner Light” is a more personal take on a dead civilization, although it contains more of what I enjoy, but it subverts it by throwing Picard into the middle of events (and is shamelessly manipulative and maudlin to boot).

John Scalzi: Redshirts

Redshirts is just about the perfect vacation book: It’s a page-turner, it’s funny, and it’s thought-provoking.

It takes place in a Star Trek-like universe, in which crew members of the starship Intrepid find that they are at great risk of being killed whenever they go on a mission with one of five key officers. So much so that most of the crew tries to look busy whenever they can’t avoid the officers outright. Our hero Andrew Dahl and his friends – all recent recruits to the Intrepid – try to unravel what’s going on, and find that not only is there a high fatality rate, but that the officers’ adventures are filled with near-impossible levels of coincidence, as well as events which seem flat-out impossible violations of the laws of physics. Eventually they convince themselves of what must be happening, and hatch a plan to try to fix things and save their own lives in the process.

If you’re familiar with the central conceit of the book, then I’ll discuss it at more length after the jump below. If you’re not, then I’m not going to spoil it here. And it’s either going to work for you, or it isn’t. It worked for me (for the most part), and the story is a fine example of characters backed into a corner and struggling as best they can to get out of their predicament. It’s also at at-times touching story for certain characters who realize what’s been happening to them (in some cases for years), and for certain other characters whose confrontation with the fantastic events causes them to reflect upon and change the course of their lives.

Scalzi is, no doubt about it, a fantastic wordsmith. His light tone doesn’t always work for me (and I can easily see it turning off some readers), and he has to thread the needle here to not lighten the tone of the often-gruesome first half of the book without making it feel inappropriate, and then switch gears to the more serious second half without it becoming maudlin. He succeeds at this quite well, and I was constantly impressed with how funny the book was, but also how clever it was.

As I said, the similarity to Star Trek is deliberate, but it’s not – as I’ve seen a few observe – fan fiction by any reasonable measure. It’s also not metatextual in that it’s not really commenting on Star Trek or similar shows. (If it’s commenting on anything, it’s poking fun at the bad writing that creeps into – if not pervades – most TV shows which have to crank out 20+ episodes per year.) It’s using the basic framework of Star Trek to tell its own story, and I think by-and-large it is respectful of the genre while still being realistic about its sillier aspects.

Unless you take your Star Trek too seriously, or can’t connect with Scalzi’s writing style, I think Redshirts is well worth a read.

Some more spoiler-laden discussion after the jump:

Continue reading “John Scalzi: Redshirts”

John Scalzi: The God Engines

If The Android’s Dream could be looked at as John Scalzi taking the humorous side of his writing to its logical extreme in a novel, The God Engines could be seen as the opposite, as it is a very serious, rarely humorous, and very dark fantasy. (Well, a fantasy with spaceships.) It may also be his best work to date.

Captain Ean Tephe of the Righteous seems practically like a set-up for a Star Trek story, but in this case Tephe’s ship is in the fleet of a culture which serves its god, a god which has been conquering other gods since creation came into being. Many of the conquered gods are now the power source for the ships of the fleet, and Tephe’s god gains power through the faith of his followers, a faith stoked on the Righteous by the ship’s priest, Ando, whom Tephe doesn’t care for very much. Tephe is recalled to lead a mission to bring his god’s faith to a new planet, a planet that doesn’t know of any gods, and whose faith could therefore be seen as purer than those of long standing. This journey both reveals to us the details of the culture in which Tephe lives, and reveals to Tephe some unpleasant truths underlying that culture.

For such a short novel, Scalzi packs in plenty of details, such as what happens to the followers of the conquered gods, how the social structure on the Righteous works, and glimpses into the workings of the government and priesthood. But he keeps the story focused on Tephe, who is a moral and practical man who turns a blind eye to things he doesn’t like that he can’t change, and who also fervently wishes to command a spaceship even though he’s promised much greater things once this mission is completed.

By the end of the book, the fantasy has turned to horror, quite effectively so. The actual conclusion I found a little disappointing as I’d hoped things would turn out differently, but I can certainly see the argument that things couldn’t have gone any differently. Despite that, I thought The God Engines was an outstanding story, not in the least diminished through the relative lack of Scalzi’s trademark zingers (the story isn’t entirely without humor, but it’s very much reduced in quantity). I’d love to see him do more of this sort of thing, especially since I didn’t care at all for the other direction, as seen in The Android’s Dream. Though I think the smart money is on us seeing more novels somewhere in the middle, as his Old Man’s War series has been.

John Scalzi: Zoë’s Tale

Zoë’s Tale can be read on its own, but it fits better as a companion novel to Scalzi’s previous book, The Last Colony. It follows the events of that novel through the eyes of Zoë, the teenaged adoptive daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan, the protagonists of the first three of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War novels. Scalzi writes in the afterward that he was moved to write this novel partly to illuminate the character of Zoë, who plays a pivotal role in the story despite not being the protagonist, and to fill in some perceived gaps in the story, particularly Zoë’s role in the climax, which happens off-stage. I was skeptical of a companion book like this, in part because I think The Last Colony is fine as it is, but Zoë’s Tale is actually perfectly entertaining on its own.

You can read the synopsis of the overall plot in my review of The Last Colony, and it serves largely as backdrop here: The nitty-gritty details of colonizing a hostile world, the living in fear of being discovered by hostile aliens, and the duplicity of the human government are downplayed: They’re all elements on the minds of Zoë and other colonists, but they’re not things they have to grapple with every minute, because they’re not the colony’s leaders. Instead the book is about Zoë and her perceptions as all this is going on, and particularly her journey to discover her role in the universe. And it’s a big role, because a friendly alien race, the Obin, revere her as the daughter of the human scientist who gave them consciousness, and two of them, Hickory and Dickory, are her bodyguards and watchers. She was eight when all this started, but as she’s grown up she’s stopped seeing it as some cool thing that makes her special and started wondering why she should be so special, and found that being followed around by two overprotective aliens is in fact a little bit annoying, especially since – other than keeping her safe (which until this adventure has not been a big issue) – it doesn’t really benefit her or anyone she knows very much. Well, other than that this situation is a condition of the peace treaty between humanity and the Obin. But that’s not a very personal sort of benefit.

Zoë is a very likable character, although she becomes a little annoying since she sees a little too transparently to be a vehicle for Scalzi to express his own considerable facility for sarcasm. I’m as big a fan (and fount) of sarcasm as anyone, but her interactions with John and with her best friend Gretchen seemed a little too cute and too perfect, and this made the first third of a book hard going at times, especially since the other events in this period were basically a recapitulation of The Last Colony. Zoë and her friends become much more interesting once the colony is abandoned on the planet Roanoke and the tensions become ratcheted up: Then it becomes more of a tale of people (some smart, some rather stupid) dealing with exceptional situations, where Zoë is sometimes the voice of reason and sometimes one of the rebellious kids.

So the enjoyment of the story mainly comes from seeing Zoë grow from this sarcastic kid into a responsible young woman, a growth forced by her love of her family and friends and recognition that she has resources that no one else has. She demonstrates that she’s responsible and smart when she helps save two of her friends from the local alien race on Roanoke through cleverness and bravery. And she demonstrates a deeper level of responsibility when we follow her into space to meet with several races who are involved in the drama that John and (through him) the rest of humanity is playing out. In some ways that meeting is the most compelling development in the book, as she befriends the leader of the group who plan to wipe out their colony (getting involved in their own political battles), and also resolves her position with the Obin as a means of getting a boon from the much more powerful race of the Consu. On the other hand, the direct meeting with the Consu feels a little too much like a pivotal scene in Old Man’s War, only without the denouement of the actual combat, and the three lines that punctuate that climax feel too abrupt. I see that Scalzi felt that the key moment had already been written and everything else was not essential, but it still felt awkward and pulled me out of the story.

Zoë’s Tale moves the tone of the Old Man’s War stories away from more “serious” military/political SF and toward purely humanistic SF (in the Kim Stanley Robinson mode). On the one hand it’s a welcome evolution (one I appreciate a lot more than the farcical style of the unrelated The Android’s Dream), but on the other hand I think Scalzi is at his best when he’s writing a story about plans-within-plans, or the people trying to figure out and foil those plans, which means this novel has less of Scalzi’s best stuff in it. As I said, it’s a companion volume, and ultimately not as good as The Last Colony (which, to be fair, is quite good), and it does little to advance our understanding of the OMW universe, which is a bit disappointing. It’s an enjoyable read, and while Scalzi had developed a lot as a writer since Old Man’s War, but I don’t think it measures up to the first three.

John Scalzi Visits the Creation Museum

If you’re not a regular reader of John Scalzi’s blog, nip over there to read his hilarious report about visiting the Creation Museum:

  1. Start with the photographic tour on Flikr.
  2. Then read the accompanying essay, which features liberal use of the word “horseshit”.

It’s well worth the time to read through it all, especially the photo set.

(For more hilarity, visit the Creation Museum’s web site, too.)

Then you can enter Scalzi’s LOLCreashun contest.

In related news, the long-running PBS science program Nova last night ran an episode about the 2005 trial involving the Dover, PA school board which rejected Intelligent Design’s claims to be a rational alternative to evolution. I unfortunately missed the episode (hopefully I can catch it some other time), but Ars Technica has some additional info about the Dover trial’s impact on the ID movement and what the ID people are up to these days.

It’s too bad we sometimes have to take these people seriously in order to refute their silliness. It’s much more fun to just mock them like Scalzi does. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to decisively and finally win a battle against what amounts to rampant (if not willful) ignorance.

Just Ignore the Author Behind the Curtain

J.K. Rowling says that Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series is gay.

I hate it when an author makes statements like this about their story after the fact, and I’ve learned through experience to simply ignore them, unless I happen to be specifically interested in the author’s writing process (which, in the case of Harry Potter, I’m not). My feeling is that if a fact didn’t matter enough to actually make it into the book, then it ain’t so. That doesn’t mean that it ain’t not so, either. But once the story is finished and distributed, the author doesn’t get to fiat it into existence.

(In Rowling’s case, I also wonder why she bothers to bring it up now. Cynically, I suspect it’s just to keep her name in the news, now that Harry Potter Mania is fading.)

John Scalzi weighs in on the subject:

Do these facts mean that Dumbledore’s sexuality is unimportant to who the character is? Absolutely not. The moment Rowling said (or discovered, however you want to put it) that Dumbledore was gay, it made a difference in how she perceived him and how she wrote him. The only way Rowling’s statement of Dumbledore’s sexuality would be irrelevant or should be ignored by the reader (should they hear of the fact at all) is if there were proof that Rowling was tacking on the sexuality of Dumbledore after the fact of the writing, i.e., that Rowling had no conception of Dumbledore’s sexuality through all the books, and then is throwing the “dude, he’s gay” statement out there now just for kicks.

I’m in agreement with John on many things, but I think he’s got this one exactly wrong. I think his error is in confusing the story with the author; while the two are clearly linked, they’re not the same thing. Once the author has finished the story, it becomes a thing unto itself, experienced completely independently of further input from the author. In effect, once the story is finished, the author becomes just another reader of the story, her opinion no more important than that of any other reader for the purposes of interpreting and experiencing the story. Anything she left out of the story is not part of the story, even if it factored into how she wrote it. If it was left out, and it can’t be reasonably deduced from the text, then it’s not part of the story, and in this case, not part of the character.

Essentially (and I know I’m not the first one to say this), once the story is finished, it’s no longer the author’s story, it’s the reader’s story. I mean this in the experiential sense, not the legal sense, of course: The reader doesn’t own the story, but they do own their experience of reading the story, and their interpretation of the story, and I think it’s entirely fair to base that entirely on the story, and completely disregard elements which are not in the text.

I think part of the point of fiction is that it’s an experiential and interpretive thing. Having the author come down from on high and state “this is so” when it’s not even in the story undermines that part of the experience, and cuts out the possibility of interpretation.

John also says:

Going back to Rothstein, the best you can say for his argument is that it notes that Dumbledore doesn’t have to be gay for many of the influential events of his life to have had an effect on him. To which the correct response is to say, yes, well. And this would be different from the lives of actual gay people exactly how? We go through any number of events in our lives without our sexuality front and center — it would make sense an author would model a character similarly. But it doesn’t mean that at the end of the day that sexuality doesn’t matter to who the character is.

The crux of the issue is this: If you can’t perceive that the character is gay, then does it matter to you whether the character is gay? John thinks so, I don’t. It’s a matter of perception, because reading fiction is entirely a matter of perception. But once a story is finished, that something else went on behind the scenes, that the writer intended something which didn’t come through in the story, means that those elements actually don’t matter. Because if they did matter, then they’d be present in the story.

Which means that I’ll believe John Perry is allergic to blueberries when it shows up in one of Scalzi’s novels, and not before.

I don’t really care whether or not Dumbledore was gay, but having read the books, I see no strong reason to believe one way or the other. Unlike Ceej, who has some smart things to say about the whole brouhaha, I don’t think the Grindelwald stuff is compelling evidence.

Your mileage may vary, but the important thing is that it’s your mileage, not J.K. Rowling’s.

The Creation Museum on Science Talk

Some of you may know that John Scalzi went to the Creation Museum and plans to post about his trip real soon now.

However, Scientific American‘s weekly podcast Science Talk ran an interview in their July 25 episode interviewing Stephen Asma of Columbia College, who also visited the Creation Museum and wrote about it for Skeptic magazine. It’s frightening stuff (albeit predictably frightening for anyone familiar with the religious right), describing how the Creation Museum’s proprietors see modern science as a direct cause of many of the perceived (by them) ills of western culture.

You can listen to the episode in MP3 format.

John Scalzi: The Android’s Dream

Review of the novel The Android’s Dream, by John Scalzi.

After finishing John Scalzi’s The Last Colony, I was excited to launch right into this one, which is unrelated to the Old Man’s War trilogy. Unfortunately, The Android’s Dream really wasn’t my cup of tea: It’s a very light action-adventure story with heavy dollops of farce

In the near future, mankind has joined a community of worlds, and one of its closest allies among the many alien races is the caste-bound Nidu, who communicate in part by sense of smell. One human diplomat harbors a long-standing grudge against the Nidu and sparks a diplomatic incident in a first chapter which is basically a long fart joke (with an equally-unfunny aside about meat consumption). Besides just not enjoying the chapter, it made it hard for me to take the rest of the book seriously.

Following that, Secretary of State Jim Heffer and his aide Ben Javna try to find a resolution to the dispute – the Nidu having Earth over a barrel due to the circumstances – and negotiate a deal to try to find a special breed of sheep needed for the upcoming Nidu coronation ceremony. Failure could lead to a breaking of the alliance, a result which some factions on Earth think would be a perfectly fine thing. Javna farms out the sheep-finding job to his friend Harry Creek, a low-level functionary in the government who’s actually a tremendously capable ex-soldier, and who is the book’s protagonist. Creek has the help of a cutting-edge computing resource, and in his search he meets Robin Baker, owner of a pet store with an unexpected relationship to Creek’s search. Creek and Robin are pursued by hired guns whose employers have different designs on the coronation, and there are a couple of other interested parties as well. The problems are solved with a little deus-ex-machina mixed with a little Gordian-knot-slicing.

Some of what I enjoyed about Scalzi’s other books is present here: Creek and Robin facing their pursuers in the middle of a mall is smartly written and inventively engaging. Creek’s background in the army is well-thought-out. The dialogue is sharp.

But the book is weighed down by its many frivolous and farcical elements. The Android’s Dream is filled with the sorts of ridiculous touches which turned me off of books such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash or Max Barry’s Jennifer Government: The extreme conclusion of mixing our meat-consuming culture with our conservationist attitudes; a church created as a scam and self-consciously maintained in that spirit (sort of the anti-Scientologists); the endless parade of rather silly aliens. It all feels more dreary than funny.

Scalzi also employs the time-worn technique of giving many of the major characters – as well as the Church of the Evolved Lamb – a lengthy expository aside in which their backstory and motivations are explained, often for humorous effect. For some reason, this technique never works for me: The backstory, even if relevant, feels extraneous, and also falls into the trap of being a big “tell-don’t-show” exercise.

And, I was disappointed that, well, there isn’t anything in the book about androids dreaming; the title refers to the breed of sheep that everyone’s trying to find. (The cover features sheep, although it also features an android. It really has almost nothing to do with the story, and thus seems a little misleading.) Of course, the title plays off the title of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and some have said that the book has some stylistic similarities to Dick. I’ve only read a little of Dick’s writing (The Man in the High Castle and A Scanner Darkly), neither of which I enjoyed, so that’s not a selling point for me.

The book moves along fairly well after getting through the first several chapters, which set up the scenario and introduce Creek and his world, but the story just didn’t work for me. I really wanted to like this book, having enjoyed the Old Man’s War series as much as I have. But those books feature a light, bantering narrative set against a serious background with serious themes, while this book was a veneer of serious story set against a mostly-silly background with few serious themes. Not my thing.

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.)

Scalzi on Tour

My friend A. had mentioned a while ago going to see John Scalzi this week as part of his book tour. Scalzi is a well-known (maybe the well-known) blogger and science fiction author, and is supporting his latest book, The Last Colony.

With my Mom having departed yesterday, and since it looks like I won’t be going to WisCon this year to have him sign his latest books, I asked Andrew if I could tag along (read: sponge a ride off of him), and said yes (or words to that effect). So around 5:40 we piled into his car and drove over to Half Moon Bay to the Bay Book Company.

One meal at Round Table Pizza later (mm-mmm!) we arrived at the store. It’s been a while since I’d been there, and I’d forgotten that they’re a quite charming, cozy little book store off Highway 1. Usually I only stop in downtown when I’m in Half Moon Bay. All the posters on top of the bookcases announced that they get quite a few authors in for signings, so they must work hard to get on the list for authors like Scalzi; no doubt it’s a big boost to their business.

I bought a copy of Colony when we arrived, and then John emerged. He surveyed the crowd of 25 or so people, saw me, pointed and said “Michael!”

Okay, that was unexpected, but yes, I’ve met John before, before his first SF novel was picked up for publication, even, as well as twice at WisCon. I’m always flattered that he recognizes me, but really, he’s no dummy and he’s clearly got a good memory, so should I expect any less? (Actually, I have an idea of why I find it flattering, but try as I might I can’t put it into words. It has nothing to do with his being a published author, and more to do with his intelligence, wit and self-confidence. I’ve felt similarly about a few other people, notably my friend Bruce, who I think shares many of his best qualities with John.)

Lest I go on too long about that, my read on John is that he’s amazingly excited to be going on this book tour, but also a little apprehensive about seeing so many people whom he doesn’t know, even if they are fans of his. I guess seeing them at a convention is one thing, but “out in the wild” is something else. But that’s just my read; John’s able to manage and entertain an audience pretty handily (better than I could, that’s for sure), so I’m sure he’s got nothing to worry about.

He entertained us with tales of getting his books published (he was quite fortunate to have his first published novel noticed and bought by an editor due to publishing it on his Web site), getting covers chosen for his books (like cover blurbs, the covers themselves are mostly a marketing concern), and some of the work he has in the pipeline. Not to mention running for president of SFWA.

And then he signed books. A. said to me that he’s never been big on signed books. I’m not into them per se, but I enjoy getting things signed as a keepsake of the experience of meeting the author. It helps fix the memories in my mind, and sometimes I come away with some fun stories.

In this case, it was just fun seeing Scalzi again. I hope he has a great time on his tour. If you get a chance, go see him; it’s worth the trip.

(P.S.: I may end up in a photo in his blog, as he posted one from last night’s Seattle gathering. I’ll let you know if I get [further] immortalized in bits.)