John Scalzi Archive

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Book Review: The End of All Things

Let’s start this review with a quick story, shall we? Set the wayback machine for Sunday morning at Ad Astra in Toronto. After a weekend of drinking (because I’m at a con hanging out with other writers) pain pills (because I did something to my back before the con) and not enough sleep (see the above) I found myself on a panel with Charlotte Ashley and Derek Newman-Stille. If I recall, the topic of the panel was contemporary issues in science fiction. Being hung over, exhausted, on meds, and desperate to seem clever, I ended up bloviating pretty hard. Rookie mistake. I should have known better.

The one decent thing I remember saying was that it would be interesting to see a space opera working to deconstruct empire, rather than using it as a convenient narrative vehicle. I think John Scalzi does just that in The End of All Things.

Even if the latest volume in the Old Man’s War universe doesn’t fully dismantle the romance of the space empire in space opera, it does put empire, as a concept, under a magnifying glass. The Colonial Union shows us the cost and hubris of a hard power empire. To maintain its dominion, the CU uses its corps of super-soldiers against human colonies seeking independence. In contrast, the six-hundred alien races of the Conclave – a more pragmatic United Federation of Planets – illustrates the soft-power empire. Where once the Conclave existed as a mutual defence (against the Colonial Union) and trade organisation, its hegemonic power has given way to a modified Bush Doctrine of “get the humans before they get us”. This cold war on the verge of going hot continues the central theme that began in Mr. Scalzi’s previous novel, The Human Division: even the grandest house of cards can be undone when someone small bumps the table.

A reader might expect to find this story told from the perspective of the upper echelons of power. With only a single exception, The End of All Things leans heavily toward telling the stories of working people on behalf of their greater whole. One of the most important characters to the story is the third-string pilot on a cargo ship. A pair of lieutenants within the Colonial Defence Forces anchor half the book. Even with the fate of the galaxy is at hand, Mr. Scalzi subverts expectations that might see space Jack Ryan rubbing elbows with the space Joint Chiefs.

Perhaps this is the great strength of Mr. Scalzi’s writing. He is an expert at writing people, even when he’s working with non-human characters. The aliens of The End of All Things are not hideous and unknowable others. One particular alien takes up arms against humanity because there is widespread unemployment on his planet, and fighting means having a job. This doesn’t mean humanity is cast as the galaxy’s foremost monsters, either. If anything, humans are seen as tiresome and exhausting. To paraphrase one particular alien leader, “I’m sick of thinking about humans.” Aren’t we all, Madam Premiere?

And while we’re on the subject of being tired of humans, there’s a delicious snark running through each of the book’s narrative voices. Nowhere is this more evident than when the author pays attention to fine details that might get lumped into the category of social justice. This isn’t to suggest the novel is a manifesto. In point of fact, it is the exact opposite.

The End of All Things is effortless in the way it promotes institutional equality, tolerance, and compassion as de rigueur. I picture the Robert Heinlein fanboys reading The End of All Things and being horrified at the presence of “SJW” propaganda leaking into “their” genre. In truth, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision Mr. Scalzi intentionally biting his thumb at the kind of people who feel threatened by women written outside the confines of the male gaze or the use of alternative pronouns in reference to non-gender binary characters.

At the end of all things, Mr. Scalzi challenges his characters, and by extension his readers, to see beyond the monolithic ideas of their/our times and toward something better. I’m told there’s a certain hubris, perhaps even a privilege, in and about narratives of hope within science fiction. If this is the case, I trust the internet will deputize the appropriate taxation authorities to collect on my complete and total satisfaction with this novel. It’s one thing for a novel to impress me. It’s something else when it stirs an optimism I thought long since crushed under the weight of cynicism and a popular tendency toward darker narratives of entropy and annihilation.

If this is the end of the Old Man’s War universe, then Mr. Scalzi has given the old girl a fantastic send off. If not, he’s driven his universe toward an uncertain evolution that should make for some fantastic novels to come.


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Podcast Episode 29: The Kaiju-sized Military SF Episode

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and K.W. Ramsey

It took a couple weeks of planning and schedule jockeying, but K.W. Ramsey and I were finally able to sit down to record an extended length podcast on military science fiction.

What could be finer than two white guys talking about the quintessential post-colonial white guy sub-genre? Am I right?

Seriously though, we begin the discussion by drawing upon Damien Walter’s Guardian piece on overly simplistic military science fiction. From there we jump back and forth between military SF on film and in literature. As with most ninety minute discussions, nothing gets resolved, but I think we come up with a few decent ideas on how military SF can evolve to reflect a slightly less antiquated world view.

Make sure to check out Mr. Ramsey’s blog at The Left Hand of Dorkness and follow him on twitter @kwramsey

Topics under discussion include,

- The ideology of the Federation and Starfleet’s role therein; also that time David Nickle trolled us on facebook about Cumberbatch’s character in STiD

- David Weber’s love affair with the 19th century and why military SF at large needs to get past the British Empire

- John Scalzi as the wild card of military SF – also included there is the story of the first time I met Scalzi and went from zero to fanboy in eight seconds.

- Mr. Ramsey’s very compelling theory on why I think Ender’s Game is a crap novel

- A discussion on how to responsibly consume art when the artist is a horrible person

- Robert Heinlein, kooky but honest

- How Pacific Rim does military SF in a slightly different sort of way

- Class and education as factors in crafting protagonists in military SF

Cold Intro Music: The Lady of Vastness by Dan-O at DanoSongs.com

Theme music: Bionic Commando stage 4 (Dale vs Wray mix) (NecroPolo) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0


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Short Story Review: The Human Division – Episode 10 – This Must Be the Place

What? Adam is reviewing the tenth episode of a serialised novel that he hasn’t written about since the first part came out two-and-a-half months ago? What’s the deal?

The truth is, I don’t know if I would have put pen to paper on this chapter of The Human Division were it not for the following few tweets from John Scalzi, himself.

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While I can see both sides of the argument surrounding “This Must Be the Place,” I think it stands out as one of the best episodes in the series to date.

As Scalzi says over on his blog this is not a particularly science fiction heavy episode. Hart Schmidt, one of the overall story’s main characters, goes home to visit his family on Phoenix, the capital world of the Colonial Union. Before driving out to his family’s compound, yeah they’re that rich, Hart luxuriates in a hotel room for a night, savouring the personal space and hot water showers absent on the CU diplomatic starship he calls home. Upon arrival, he banters with his siblings, gets pressured to enter politics by his father, and endures his mother’s editorial comments on a lack of grandchildren bearing Hart’s DNA. Save for the wealth and political office, it’s a bit like a visit to my long-time girlfriend’s parent’s house. Considering the all too common nature of such an experience, I expect a certain demographic is going to really latch on to this story.

Beyond this specific appeal, I can still see a broader purpose for this episode within the “humanity turned against itself” conflict of The Human Division. Simply put, we finally have a character to care about.

This isn’t to say the other characters aren’t memorable. But the pace of THD does not allow for crafting extensive back stories. We learn about the characters as they exist in the moment. How they change from episode to episode weaves the tapestry of who they are, but only ever in medias res. So if Scalzi decided he wanted to kill somebody, say Harry Wilson, I’d only miss him to the extent that he was a tie-in character to Old Man’s War…well that and his hilarious rant about the Chicago Cubs being the ultimate definition of failure in professional sports. Even in the future, the Cubs are renowned for their inability to win.

In taking us through Hart Schmidt’s history, Scalzi is facilitating an opportunity to genuinely empathize with the character. After nine episodes of action, exposition, one-off encounters on Earth, and one story which was entirely told as dialogue – which for the record, I thought was boring as hell – readers can now get good and invested in a character as the stakes get raised through the final three chapters. Dare I even suggest Hart is emerging as a hero of this story? The only down side is this paints a giant target on Ned Stark’s, I mean Hart Schmidt’s back.

The trip to Phoenix has the additional benefit of adding more depth to the universe in which the story is set. Prior to this chapter, I don’t recall any serious discussions of economic class distinction within the Colonial Union. Active service members of the Colonial Defence Forces don’t pay for anything during their ten years of service. When John Perry musters out of the CDF I don’t remember any evidence of poverty on either of the two CU planets that we see. While I never suspected the CU to be the United Federation of Planets, it nevertheless seemed somewhat egalitarian, at least until this week.

Hart Schmidt’s family read as if they were the Space Kennedys. Mind you, it would have been all too easy to turn Hart’s father into Mitt Romney, or some other send-up of contemporary douche bag gentry. Hart’s desire to leave the family “business” and join the CU would have worked just as well under such a model, and I, as a reader, would have still felt a strong empathy toward Hart’s character. Instead, Scalzi writes about wealthy people as we would want them to be, rather than raging against how they are today.

Alastair Schmidt is connected to the usual bootstrap rhetoric, but he also plays the patron, creating jobs for people which allow them to meaningfully pursue their passions during their downtime. Though demanding to his staff, he works toward a sense of greater good, using politics to support the people of Phoenix rather than having them legitimize his own power base. He’s the kind of elder statesman that Rousseau talks about in The Social Contract. Science fiction needs these sorts of ideas. Amid a new dystopia every week, stories that believe in ideals and individual freedoms seem in considerably short supply.

This glimpse into daily life on Phoenix also works to justify the often heavy handed and seemingly Machiavellian decisions of the CDF and the Colonial Union’s upper echelons. Humanity needs the CU to make the hard choices for the species, which in turn allows Alastair Schmidt to focus the nuances of a coalition government in Phoenix’s parliament. Where the CU used to look like an arbitrary and arrogant organization, and I hated myself for being duped into agreeing with their rhetoric, it now appears as the institution which allows the arts to flourish behind the shield of the CDF.

Even though “This Must Be the Place” is a change of pace for The Human Division, it defiantly works as an effort to build character depth and make the world of the Colonial Union a more authentic place in the eyes of readers. Given its placement within the thirteen episode arc, I can only imagine some very bad things are about to happen to the Clarke and the Colonial Union at large.


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Book Review: The Human Division Episode 1 – The B-Team

The B-Team is the first episode in John Scalzi’s serialized novel, The Human Division. Set within his multiple award winning Old Man’s War universe, The Human Division returns readers to the high-stakes space opera of the Colonial Union. And for this reader, the reunion could not have come soon enough.

In an attempt to maintain some level of critical objectivity, rather than collapsing outright into a squee-ing mess of Scalzi fanboyism, I approached The B-Team with one question at the forefront of my thoughts: does somebody need to read John Perry’s story, the eponymous Old Man, to appreciate this particular novel? While The Human Division is set after the events of the third/fourth book in the OMW timeline, it’s safe to say that foreknowledge of this world is not required. Be warned, however, The B-Team will yeild some rather large spoilers for the previous books.

For newcomers, Scalzi manages to accomplish in three chapters of The B-Team what he spread out over three OMW books. A scant twenty pages frame the essential science behind the Colonial Union, humanity’s near future-ish space empire, as well as the socio-political monstrosity that is the CU’s governance. Oh, and Scalzi also (re)introduces the green skinned, genetically engineered, cybernetically augmented, consciousness transferred soldiers of the Colonial Defence Force. Yet for all this introduction material, the story does not suffer. The first chapter ends with a space battle. The second is brimming with the sort of humour that has come to embody much of Scalzi’s writing. And in the third chapter The Human Division channels Radiohead in establishing an overall conflict best embodied by the song “You Do It To Yourself”. For all the aliens, starships, and super soldiers, the crux of this series is rooted in human failings.

Similarly, readers who have been waiting for this story since the end of The Last Colony/Zoe’s Tale will find a few things have changed since their last trip into Colonial space. Where readers grew into their previous understanding of the CU as John Perry rose through the ranks of the CDF, The B-Team is a little more up front. The story shifts its perspective between a team of diplomats on a peace mission and a pair of Colonels at the forefront of Colonial policy. This results in an outright revelation detailing the ways in which the CU has bungled things for Humanity in the wake of Roanoke colony.

Yet for all this grand political context, the story of the B-Team is focused and character driven. In earnest, Ambassador Abumwe, a taciturn junior diplomat, and Lt. Wilson, a CDF researcher on loan to the diplomatic corps, are just cogs in a much bigger narrative. Also, Abumwe, Wilson, and crew are about as far as one can get from James T. Kirk and any of his associated archetypes. Their story is one of people who work for a living, moving from one backwater assignment to the next, hoping to make a name for themselves in the process. This creates an instant rapport between reader and characters, which is no small accomplishment considering that Scalzi has written a truly unlikable person in Ambassador Abumwe.

There is also something to be said in the decision to release this book as a serialized novel. It’s an obvious throw-back to the days of pulp space operas, but the story itself is anything but flaky or ephemeral. Priced at 99 cents an issue, The Human Division boats a particularly good risk-reward ratio. In terms of time and money invested, there’s not a lot of loss if The B-Team doesn’t resonate with a potential reader. Meanwhile the rest of us get to endure the giddy thrill of waiting in anticipation for the following week’s installment.

As an unrepentant fan of John Scalzi’s work (seriously, I made a total dork of myself the first time I met the guy) I know I’m not exactly inclined to find fault in his writing. Yet even at my curmudgeonly best, I don’t think I could cite many flaws in The B-Team. Scalzi continues to demonstrate how military sci-fi need not be a fussy and inaccessible niche within a niche, suitable only to the prodigiously detail oriented and/or war-game aficionados. The B-Team is whip smart, funny, and strikes the perfect balance between efficiency and elegance in its prose.

The Human Division: Part 1 – The B-Team

Written by: John Scalzi

Published by: Tor


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Book Review: Gabriel’s Redemption by Steve Umstead

I’m going to preface this review with a pro tip for twitter users. If you follow enough writers, you will never want for free e-books. Case in point, some weeks ago Mr. Umstead was giving away digital copies of the first book in his Evan Gabriel Trilogy. I learned of this via another author who was so kind as to help spread the word. Thanks, Leah. Prior to her tweet, I had never before heard of Steve Umstead or his eponymous character Evan Gabriel. Though I’m not quite sure how that came to be the case given the quality of his novel.

After logging on to Amazon, two things immediately got me excited about this book. The first was the novel’s cover art, which featured a hammer headed starship orbiting a planet. I don’t care if rovers and Cylons are the future of manned space exploration; starships are cool. The second feature, which really “sold” the novel, was the accompanying headline review touting Umstead’s literary style as something which brings together the best of John Scalzi and Tom Clancy.

Like Scalzi, Umstead works within a golden age of sci-fi framework; wherein the post-colonial man goes about a new era of colonization via advanced technologies and starships. At the same time, Gabriel’s Redemption balances these very traditional science fiction elements with Earth based international intrigue, spy games, high stakes politics, and a dedication to military ephemera – up to and including submarines. Thankfully, Umstead is not as exhaustive as Clancy in his techno-babble. And unlike another aficionado of starships and space navies, David Weber, whose exposition often comes at the price of a steady narrative, Umstead’s detail oriented turns happen at the exact right moments. So while the Scalzi/Clancy comparison is valid, there is however another who I would invoke with respect to Mr. Umstead’s style: Chris Roberts.

Though I may lose the literary crowd with this reference, I suspect I will wake up the gamers reading this review when I say Gabriel’s Redemption is the second best thing to a novelization of StarLancer.

In so much as this novel is about power armour clad special forces soldiers undertaking a clandestine mission on a far flung charter colony, it’s also a political struggle between near-future supra-nations. The North American Federation, the Chinese Empire, and the South American Federation are all engaged in a sci-fi equivalent of the “Scramble for Africa.” Rather than taking the Scalzi approach to space empire building, wherein space is big and nasty aliens want nice planets as much as we do, Umstead contains his narrative through the use of wormhole technology. This has the added benefit of keeping the hard sci-fi pedants at bay by removing any discussions of “FTL drives”. Similarly, starships within the navies of the space faring powers are subject to rules of acceleration and artificial gravity via rotating ship components. As is the case with any novel that involves starships and exo-planets, a suitably motivated person could probably find a few places in the text to poke holes. However, the narrative within Gabriel’s Return is tight enough and the explanations suitably satisfying as to disarm any such tedious inclinations, save for the most trollish of readers.

One particular thing I appreciated within this book is the author’s ability to balance optimism for the future with a sense of realism regarding the world that exists outside of our contemporary windows. Set toward the end of the 22nd century, the novel sees Mars colonized before the advent of interstellar travel. Yet the Martian colonial venture is a disaster due to the complex logistics involved in creating self-sustaining ecosystem. Similarly, the current problems of our world are not hand waved away through the gimmicks of future tech. Yes there are fusion reactors and biological computer implants, but the novel’s first chapter is clear in illustrating the consequences of man-made climate change, even if it is one hundred and fifty years into the future. For all the wonders space travel brings to the streamlined nations of the Earth, this is a future of resource shortages, unseasonable warmth, and rising sea levels. In that sense, Umstead’s future colonial experience is quite apropos of any number of historical examples wherein the influx of new resources and real estate are not the cure-all colonial architects would imagine. The colonies become transit points for luxuries and, in some cases, excuses for hegemonic powers to fight one and other.

Notwithstanding Evan Gabriel’s Kirk like ability to get a mostly irrelevant character in bed toward the end of the book, probably as a means of setting her up as a more developed character in the second novel, Gabriel’s Redemption is quite the solid read. It may not set any new frontiers in storytelling, but it is refreshing in its vision of a future that doesn’t devolve entirely into human extinction and ecological catastrophe.

Gabriel’s Redemption is written and published by Steve Umstead.

E-book versions are available via Amazon, Indigo, and all the rest.


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Short Story Review: An Election

Summary Judgement: A near flawless story that balances the often opposing forces of comedy and science fiction.

Story by: John Scalzi

For a fleeting moment I was over the moon when a random twitter message led me to what I thought was a new John Scalzi short story.  “Yes,” I said to myself.  “I finally get to review something of his hot off the press.”  I fired up my Kindle only to see an original copyright date of November of 2010.  Damn, Johnny come lately once again.

As the title suggests, An Election treads into territory that was previously the sovereign domain of Laura Roslin’s oft mentioned back story: local politics. This tale begins with David Sawyer announcing to his husband that he will be running for city council in an upcoming by-election as their district’s former city councilman was splattered by a bus.  There are only two problems with David’s plan: he and his husband reside within a ward where humans are a racial minority, and said district has not elected a human councilman in nearly half a century.

Even within this opening movement An Election offers so much to enjoy. I’ll start with the world in which it is set.  When I think about aliens and humans living together, I go to one of three places, Star Trek’s 24th century San Francisco, Alien Nation’s 20th century LA, or more recently District 9’s 21st century Johannesburg. But where Star Trek is too milquetoast in its race relations, District 9 too oppressive, and Alien Nation too assimilated, An Election strikes a perfect balance between the three.  Humans are very much in charge of this city, but only to the extent that the polyglot alien vote, along with their associated religious fringe groups and Canadian hating xenophobes, are important to the political landscape, or at least its expected image.  Naturally, the allegory in play isn’t buried too deep within the text. It is, however, subtle enough to allow for more than one interpretation therein.  Though I’m tempted to wax eloquent on urban spaces as colonizing forces, it would likely do this story an injustice as comedy is at the absolute crux of David Sawyer’s life on the campaign trail.

John Scalzi is often hailed as a successor to Heinlein.  Having enjoyed every word of his debut novel, Old Man’s War (Sidebar: I once had the pleasure of talking to Mr. Scalzi about what I saw as a relationship between the Colonial Defence Force’s policies and the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive warfare.  This happened after another conversation where I gushed to him about how much I enjoyed Agent to the Stars.  It was a good weekend for me.) I’ll attest to the veracity of that statement.  Yet such a statement should not undermine this author’s consistent ability to make his audience laugh. An Election captures the precarious balance in contemporary politics between battles of sophism and the slapstick gaffes that fuel Jon Stewart’s wildest fits of incredulous apoplexy.  David goes from making an oath to his husband that he will not be insufferable in inevitable defeat, the two are the quintessential old married couple, to having his campaign manger remind him that Gherkins are pickles and Hegurchans are part of the electorate.

Speaking of aliens, Scalzi writes extraterrestrials in a way that I can only describe as Scalziesque.  Many writers seem compelled to describe every nuance and detail of their aliens, Scalzi, not so much. In my experience, he is the sort of writer who gives just enough detail to connect his alien to something already known, or to offer a conceptual framework that a reader’s imagination can fill in on their own.  For example, a Hegurchan is described as “a tall creature with an array of facial tentacles…”  When David introduces himself to a Hegurchan voter, the alien’s “face tentacles extend straight out and…wrap around David’s head, pulling him into an intimate embrace.”  I don’t need any more details to know that this thing bears a similarity to Futurama’s Doctor Zoidberg. Yet for all their strange appearances and mannerisms, the all too human desires and motivations of these aliens make them totally accessible to a reader. Again, it’s a balancing act that Scalzi pulls off with the utmost aplomb.

The only weakness I can see in this otherwise flawless story manifests itself in the defeatism that orbits David’s campaign.  At every turn, David is told that he has no chance of winning the election. Even his own campaign manager suspects that a rival candidate, whose only platform plank relates to the freedom to eat a neighbour’s pet, will do better than David.  So much inverse foreshadowing so early on made it pretty clear that David will end up as more than a token human candidate. At the same time, the constant doubt and bad mojo directed at David serves to make this comedy of errors/political manoeuvring that much more genuine and charming.

An Election is currently available as an e-book for the Kindle and Nook from Subterranean Press.  It is the best .99 cents you could spend. But why spend anything at all when I’ll contest away a couple copies. Leave a comment on this post by high noon-ish on Wednesday, January 18th and you will be entered to win.

Hits

+1 for ripping great aliens

+2 for a fantastic protagonist

+2 for start to finish humour that opens the door to no end of allegorical interpretation.

Misses

-0.5 for a bit too much “David’s going to lose” bait and switch foreshadowing.

Overall Score: +4.5