Old Man’s War 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