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Oct 01

Book Review: The Last Colony by John Scalzi

Stolen from Goodreads:

Retired from his fighting days, John Perry is now village ombudsman for a human colony on distant Huckleberry. With his wife, former Special Forces warrior Jane Sagan, he farms several acres, adjudicates local disputes, and enjoys watching his adopted daughter grow up.

That is, until his and Jane’s past reaches out to bring them back into the game–as leaders of a new human colony, to be peopled by settlers from all the major human worlds, for a deep political purpose that will put Perry and Sagan back in the thick of interstellar politics, betrayal, and war.

While I was reading The Last Colony, the third and final novel in the Old Man’s War trilogy*, I kept muttering to myself —

“In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.”

— after a while Jules told me to shut the fuck up, which I did.  But those famous words from Saint Douglas kept ricocheting around my skull.  Because if there was one thing you can say about John Perry and his wife Jane Sagan, it’s that their larger than life; more real and courageous and outspoken than anyone else in the novel, except maybe their adopted daughter Zoe.

And while it’s always nice to draw clean lines between the goodies and the baddies, the fact that Perry and Sagan are so perfect drained all the suspense and tension from the novel.  There was never a moment that the narrative fooled me into thinking that John and Jane’s audacious plans to undermine the Colonial Union while saving the Last Colony from devastation was going to fail.  This was a real man.  And this was a real woman.  And anything they did would be brave and moral and absolutely succeed with only the odd secondary character getting knocked off in the bargain.

The irony is that Old Man’s War Universe is one of dubious morals, political back stabbing and casual genocides.  In among all the shiny technology and new colonies there this dark undercurrent.  This is typified by the Colonial Union keeping the people of Earth in the dark over the many threats facing humanity.  They do this partly to quell the possibility of dissent but also so they can easily harvest the aged and infirm with the promise of turning them into fighting fit soldiers with one helluva sex drive.

So I get it.  John and Jane are the moral contrast to the amoral and at times vicious nature of the Colonial Union.  They’re a symbol of hope and rebellion against the monolith.  But fuck me, this novel would have been ten times more interesting if it didn’t always feel like the cards were stacked in Perry and Sagan’s favour.  They always seem  to have the right resource to call on, whether it’s a smart techy bloke who can hack into an encrypted system when the plot requires it or the fact that their daughter has become an object of devotion for a race of powerful aliens or the Jane Sagan gets her ‘super powers’ back at just the right time.  It makes for a predictable and ultimately unsatisfying novel.

And yet I have to credit Scalzi’s ability to keep me reading.  Even though I might have rolled my eyes on occasions – the Joss Whedon-esque snappy dialogue gets old very quickly – the sheer exuberance of the story telling meant I still wanted to know what happened next.  I never want to be so cynical that I can’t appreciate and acknowledge great story-telling.

Scalzi’s popularity is directly linked to this cinematic style of story-telling.  The descriptive passages may be thin on the ground – especially the aliens – and yet you can picture every scene clear and crisp in full HD with 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound.

While I will skip Zoe’s Tale (unless someone tells me that its more than just a retread of a story I’ve just finished) I am curious to see how Scalzi treats the Old Man’s War Universe when the perfect duo of Sagan and Perry aren’t present.  Because the potential is there for some dark, morally ambiguous and entirely more crunchier stories.  I’m just not convinced that Scalzi is interested in plumbing those depths.

We shall see.

 

* Well, OK, maybe not the final novel set in the Universe given the publication of Zoe’s Tale and The Human Division.  But the three books, starting with Old Man’s War, do form a self contained trilogy.

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