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.)

Karl Schroeder: Lady of Mazes

Review of the novel Lady of Mazes, by Karl Schroeder.

I had suggested reading something by Schroeder for the Kepler’s book discussion group, and was happy that we’d be reading this one since it’s the one book by him I haven’t read (I read Sun of Suns when it was serialized in Analog). Unfortunately, I think this is the weakest of Schroeder’s four novels to date.

The novel is told in three parts. The first part takes place on Teven Coronal, a ring station whose populace is divided up into separate “manifolds”, virtual reality spaces with different technological levels and cultures. Peoples’ perceptions are carefully regulated based on their belief systems, and it’s difficult to move between the manifolds since it requires being able to consciously change your perceptions. Our heroine, Livia Kodaly, lives in the Westerhaven manifold, which has a veneer of upper-class Renaissance culture (where authority and reputation govern who’s willing to interact with and listen to you), but with a sophisticated technological level. But Livia and her friend Aaron were in an accident some years earlier in which they were stranded outside the manifolds, and this experience changed their perceptions of Teven, and Livia is able to move between the manifolds more easily than most of her peers.

In this part, Teven is invaded by representatives of something called 3340, who are subverting the manifolds by pushing the peoples’ perceptions to the edges of what their manifolds support, which causes the boundaries between them to collapse, resulting in war between the manifolds. Livia, Aaron, and their ally Qiingi – from a low-tech manifold – manage to escape the invaders and cast off into space in a makeshift craft, in seek of help.

This leads to the second part, in which they arrive in the Archipelago, a society of stations in the vicinity of Jupiter. There they learn that Teven is in a part of space which is kept off-limits to the rest of humanity through the authority of powerful posthumans known as the Anecliptics. One of Teven’s founders gained the right to the station through a bargain with the Anecliptics, but no one else is allowed in, making hope of allies to save Teven look bleak. The Archipelago is rather the opposite of Teven: Individuals freely interact, but each has their own computer-managed “narrative” which nourishes their lives to make them as comfortable and rewarding as possible. A handful of people choose to live without narratives, but they’re in the minority. Among these is Doran Morss, a rich man with his own ship who seeks to free humanity from the oversight of the Anecliptics and the narrative system, but his pleas mostly fall on deaf ears.

Livia and company find their way in the Archipelago, covertly trying to find someone to help them save Teven, until they learn what 3340 is and what its goals are. This leads into the third part, in which we learn about Teven’s history, the Anecliptics’ mistakes, and 3340’s plans and allies.

Once again, Schroeder delivers the goods in the form of some thought-provoking and challenging ideas, contrasting the homogeneous society of the Archipelago with the forcibly-separated ones on Teven, and driving the plot with the struggle to free oneself from societal constraints imposed by higher beings. But unfortunately the goods come along with some “bads”: The book’s themes and struggles feel so abstract, and its characters so one-dimensional, that it’s very difficult to figure out what the various sides are, never mind which ones to get behind.

The book is extremely slow to get moving, although others in our discussion appreciated the first part (of three) for its cultural anthropological examinations. I felt like I got the idea rather quickly, and I wish for character development and for the plot to get moving, but it wasn’t until the second part the either happened, and then it was only the latter; the characters never did develop very much. Doran Morss could have been the most interesting character in the book – experienced, thoughtful, passionate – but we only saw brief glimpses of his feelings, so he was only slightly more than a peripheral figure – not much more than a plot device to enable 3340’s ultimate goal, really.

The final third felt quite muddled to me; although Livia’s resolution to the basic problem of 3340 was pretty clever, the story tailed off after that, with a set of epilogues (of sorts) which just didn’t work for me.

There are a lot of crunchy ideas here, but I think Schroeder just didn’t organize them into a good story. The book actually bears a lot of resemblance to his first novel, Ventus, which I’d say was his weakest book before I read this one, but it feels more concrete and like it flows more smoothly, even if its ideas are more conservative. But story counts for a lot, and the story here was both thin and scattered. A disappointment.