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The Last Colony
By John Scalzi
Tor / ISBN: 978-0-7653-1697-4
Regular readers will know that I've found myself in a special situation this month, because of accidentally getting my hands on a total of eight out of the twelve science-fiction novels nominated this year for either the Hugo or Philip K Dick award; today's review is the sixth of that series*, with both Gradisil by Adam Roberts and Rollback by Robert J Sawyer still to go, plus any of the other four nominees I manage to pick up later in the year. And as someone who used to read almost exclusively SF until college (and old-school '50s and '60s SF at that), someone who lost touch with the genre for a good decade and a half during the '90s and '00s, I have to admit that it's been interesting to be thrust back into this type of literature this month in the intense way I have, and to be reminded of all the little differences that exist within the genre, the people who like this type of sci-fi over that type, who demand this level of quality to their stories or that level.
One of the groups of people, for example, who I've been put back in contact with recently because of all these books, is that vast group making up the bulk of science-fiction's actual purchasers, conventioneers and other customer base -- the fanboys and fangirls, that is, those who just eat anything up whatsoever that has at least something to do with spaceships or exotic aliens or laser weapons or whatnot. Er, you know -- all the Buffy fans, and X-Files fans, and Earth: Final Conflict fans, the ones actually watching and purchasing and loving the merely B-level stuff that makes up the vast majority of original content of any particular literary genre. (As a matter of fact, since plenty of people argue that shows like Buffy and X-Files were better than the usual B-level stuff I'm talking about, let's specifically set this entire conversation among the lowest and cheapest of the genre, the stuff that was cranked out in places like Canada and New Zealand in the '90s for the perpetual rerunning on Saturday afternoons on direct-syndication stations in the US, stuff like Xena and Hercules and Andromeda and Farscape and all the rest. And since I don't like to have to rely on specific pop-culture references to make my point in my essays, for the remainder of today let me just refer to all such shows as the collective Low Budget Canadian Saturday Afternoon Science-Fiction Television Show, or LBCSASFTS.) Fanboys and fangirls are the ones who love LBCSASFTS; the ones who collect every season on DVD, who attend midnight balls at fan conventions in full costume and makeup, who populate online bulletin boards devoted to the subject, who don't mind that the scripts of most LBCSASFTS episodes are full of holes and kinda cheesy, with dialogue dumbed down to the level of the average 15-year-old.
There are millions of you, after all, just like there are millions in every other genre you want to mention, the people keeping that genre alive, being the only customers of 80 percent of the stuff published in that genre; and I'm not going to arbitrarily slag on any of you, because in many ways I'm a fanboy myself**, but I will say that you all will put up with an awful lot of crap that a literary fan usually shouldn't have to put up with, just for the sake of whatever genre-specific fetishistic touches you're looking for by reading that book in the first place. Let's take, for example...oh, John Scalzi's The Last Colony, the latest Hugo-nominated book under consideration here at CCLaP, which in many ways reminds me of a typical episode of LBCSASFTS; it is not bad per se, but Lord I wouldn't call it good (a sentence that will immediately prompt calls online for my death, bloody jihad-style, from various dark forums scattered among the edges of the Interwebs), ultimately something that a fanboy or fangirl will be very satisfied with but probably no one else. And this isn't necessarily bad, having a book on your hands that's likely to delight most who are fully committed to the genre, there isn't anything bad with that at all; but CCLaP isn't a science-fiction literary blog, it's just a literary blog, and part of my mission here is to always examine the appeal of any given author among a large general population versus a smaller genre one. And for better or for worse (for the reasons I'll be detailing today), Scalzi and The Last Colony fit firmly on the genre side of things, a book worth checking out but only if you already own the LBCSASFTS collector lunchbox.
In fact, this is always an interesting thing to start with regarding Scalzi, that his entire career sorta came about in a fanboy-wet-dream style: for many years simply an unpaid blogger like everyone else (albeit one trained at the prestigious University of Chicago, whose faculty advisor was briefly Saul Bellow), Scalzi basically self-published his first novel Old Man's War electronically online for free, at which point it just happened to get noticed by Tor Senior Editor Patrick Freaking Nielsen Freaking Hayden. Hayden signs it with Tor and puts it out; it immediately gets nominated for the Hugo, vaulting Scalzi from obscure blogger status to the top ten-percent of all writers in the genre, all in the course of a year. And there he's stayed since -- he's put out another four novels since, and has been both nominated for several other awards and sometimes won them. And as a matter of fact, today's book under review is actually the third in a series of interrelated ones by Scalzi, stretching back to this Old Man's War we've been talking about; that novel, see, is about a time in the future when old people on Earth are essentially tricked into waging bloody offworld war on behalf of Earth's colonizing military, by being promised tough new young genetically-engineered bodies, ones even given limited superhuman powers through the "magic" of chromosome manipulation, and then being kept in the dark about the horrific realities of the intergalactic war they're about to go fight, until it's too late to do anything about it. (In fact, there's a good reason Old Man's War gets compared often to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers; both novels achieve the dubious goal of simultaneously glorifying and decrying war.) And then the second novel in the series, The Ghost Brigades, is a standalone story concerning the "secret police" that exists within this colonial military; their brains are essentially newborn babies, put into the bodies of fully adult soldiers who have died, given a bizarre and truncated childhood and education and generally kept isolated from the entire rest of humanity.
So that's what makes The Last Colony intriguing from the start, then, is that it has little to do with either of the first two books; it instead takes the main characters from Old Man's War, retired soldier John Perry and his dead-wife-turned-secret-policewoman Jane, and puts them in charge of a peacetime mission to found a new planetary colony, a controversial one fraught with dangers. Because see, it's this general subject that drives the entire conflict behind all of Scalzi's stories; in his universe, there are tons of intelligent, spacegoing species, but only a tiny amount of planets around the galaxy that can support humanoid life, and so in realistic fashion a giant galaxy-wide space war has ensued over these precious resources, with there constantly being a state of conflict between all of the spacegoing species in question. That's bad enough; now add that this will be the first colony in history not to be founded by Earthlings, but rather by a federation of settlers from different "first-wave" planets that had already been founded by Earthlings hundreds of years ago, a decision that has many on Earth feeling deeply uncomfortable. Now add that there is a new Evil Empire in town too -- the Conclave, a group of hundreds of species besides Earth who have decided that non-Conclave species no longer have the right to colonize at all, and who are now running around blasting new colonies out of existence if they try defying the order.
Yeah -- exciting milieu, interesting characters, lots of action, built around a universe and backstory that has already been detailed in two previous books. A recipe for success, most would agree, which is why I say this book succeeds among those looking for nothing else than another episode of LBCSASFTS. (And you can see quickly why this was nominated for the Hugo too, in that this is one of the only old-school grand space-opera angry-alien laser-shooting PWEEW PWEEWPWEEW PWEEW! books in the running this year, and there is certainly a wing of Hugo voters who still want SF to primarily consist of such old-style grand Silver-Age rocket-and-robot space operas.) But then you start getting into it, and start coming across all the details that drove me in particular crazy as I was reading through it, the times when characters act dumber than they're supposed to in order to artificially inflate the drama and tension of that moment, crap I just hate seeing in a book because it always feels to me like the author being lazy. Like, here's a random one -- after establishing what an arduous thing colonization is, but how there's been tens of generations now that have done it, why then make the actual colonists such simpering doughy fools, who still rely on their little planet-to-planet radio/internet PDA doodad thingie so much for all their even basic information about life? And after so many generations of colonization teams now, haven't they come up with anything better to ship with these people than fabric tents? I mean, sheesh, even here in the 2000s there are cutting-edge architects working out prototypes of flat-pack prefab housing, stuff that can be cheaply shipped in the millions in order to create entire safe and stable refugee cities; after hundreds of years of sending out entire colonization teams to faroff planets, you'd think this futuristic group would have this stuff worked out to a science, or at least something better than pup tents and plastic storage bins. And you'd also think that before any of those colonists would be allowed on the ship, they'd be required to have a decade of survivalist training under their belt, a thorough knowledge of handpowered tools, and all the other things that come with perhaps suddenly being cut off from your delicate, temperamental, interplanetary communications doodad thingie. You know, God forbid.
Now, I know what you're saying -- that the reason these elements are like this is so that when things do start falling apart, when their communication doodads suddenly are cut off from everyone else, it'll add a layer of drama and suspense and tension to it all. But I'm not buying that, see; I don't buy the idea of characters purposely acting stupider than they're supposed to be, at freakishly appropriate times in the plot that just happen to conveniently raise the tension of the entire situation at the exact moment it's most welcome. And that, really, when all is said and done, is what mostly separates me from a fanboy or fangirl -- they're willing to buy this, and I'm not, because they're more interested in the genre elements of that genre novel, and I'm more interested in the building blocks behind all great literature. And that's why The Last Colony drove me kinda crazy when reading through it, because it's just full of the kinds of moments and elements I just mentioned, just hundreds of them that will make the non-fanboy frown and say, "But what about the...but it'd just be so easy to...Yeah, but what the...argh...arrrggh, you're driving me crazy, YOU'RE ALL DRIVING ME F-CKING CRAZY!"
I'm tempted to give The Last Colony a bad score because of all this; but that's why I try to build in some time for reflection between the day I finish a novel and the day I write its review, so that I can come to realize that it'd actually be unfair of me to lambast the novel for this alone. What we're really talking about here is more a personal choice of mine as a particular reader, not Scalzi breaking a fundamental rule for writing to be good versus bad; when it comes to the fundamentals, things like characters and structure and setting and the like, he delivers something no better and no worse than any of the other books nominated for this year's Hugo. It's not a bad book, just one of those line-in-the-sand books, and the side you stand on when you're finished is a very clear sign of whether you're a fangirl or just someone who occasionally likes a good science-fiction novel. It wasn't for me, and it's not a book I can seriously imagine winning this year; for those of you who live, eat and breathe SF, however, it's definitely one you'll want to check out.
Out of 10:
*Oh, and here are links to the other five nominated books I've now written reviews of, for those keeping track: Charles Stross' Halting State; Jon Armstrong's Grey; Sean Williams' Astropolis: Saturn Returns; Ian McDonald's Brasyl; and M John Harrison's Nova Swing. Whew! The PKD Award was announced earlier this year, and turned out to be Nova Swing (my favorite of the PKD nominees so far as well); the Hugo winner will be announced at Worldcon in Denver on August 9th, which is why I'm pushing so hard to get my own reviews finished and online by then.
**And how's this for an embarrassing fanboy confession? One of the "retro" stations here in Chicago has started showing old episodes of the ultra-cheesy '70s version of Battlestar Galactica here on Sunday afternoons; and in something like six months now, I haven't missed an episode. Sigh. I disgust myself, seriously.