The End of All Things is John Scalzi's sixth novel set in his Old Man's War universe. Here's what you have missed if you haven't read the previous books (and why you should definitely take a look at them). First of all, the Old Man's War series is what Lawrence Durrell would have called "a novel with sliding doors": every sequel adds new perspectives to what we already know and thus changes the way we perceive the story and often also our opinions of characters we have already met.
Book one, Old Man's War (2005), provides all the world-building we need. It's the story of John Perry, a 75-year-old retired advertising writer, who is presented with a new superhuman cloned body when he joins the Colonial Defense Forces to protect human space colonies. Or so they tell him. The story is similar to Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959) and Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1974), with the dissonance between the protagonist's "following orders" (killing every alien he sees), and the reader's perceiving this as senseless murder, working largely via the translation tool in his computer interface implant. Sometimes this is as subtle as referring to any alien entity as "it," even though they are clearly sentient beings with a culture and art and gender and personal names. For a time we get ambiguous statements, as if Perry is slowly getting it, but not quite yet. "The institution had replaced a cog. And I missed her" (p. 216). Maybe it's easier for him to relate to humans, rather than other lifeforms. But no—he goes back to "being a good soldier." And he thinks it's a good life: "[In] this life, I'm a soldier. [ . . . ] It's a good ship. I command good soldiers. In this life, you can't ask for much more than that" (pp. 368-9).
In the second book, The Ghost Brigades (2006), we finally get some insight into what happens if a human mind dies before completion of the transfer into a new clone provided by the CDF—i.e. what happens to the clones that do not get imprinted with somebody's consciousness. These soldiers, just "born" into a full-grown super-body and able to adapt their minds in accelerated development, make up the so-called Ghost Brigades. They don't have to adjust to their superhuman abilities or their implanted nanotech; they don't know any other way of living. And even though they seem to differ from "regular" humans, they self-identify as human.
This time the main plot is about preventing three alien races from teaming up to annihilate humanity. In order to find out what they're up to and why, our human heroes must clone the (human) traitor who started this plot , connect a saved image of his mind to the clone's brain, and interrogate this new version. But something happens during the transfer, and things turn out very differently from everybody's expectations. Despite some heavy moral finger-wagging, this book provides interesting perspectives on free will and on the definitions of humanity and identity.
Book three, The Last Colony (2007), is a deliberate play on the lost colony of Roanoke—the planet is even called Roanoke. It's a sort of space frontier story, narrated by John Perry, the colony leader (whom we got to know in the first book). Of course it's not just about founding a new colony and making it thrive, there's also a political twist to the tale. Even so, at the end we're left with the feeling that there are still some gaping plot-holes to be filled. And this, in my opinion, is where it gets really interesting. (And I don't even like frontier stories.)
The next instalment, Zoe's Tale (2008), thoroughly surprised me. At the beginning of it, Scalzi goes back all the way to the beginning of the previous book and retells the same story, from beginning to end, but from the point of view of Perry's adopted teenage daughter, Zoë. It is very different. And it explains some of the issues left over from The Last Colony which felt unresolved—mainly because that story was told by the adults who were focussing on different things and who also didn't know about a lot of what the members of the younger generation were doing behind their backs. Some of these things are foolhardy and dangerous, others show tremendous bravery and creative thinking. For me it was a lot more interesting and a lot more alive and intense than the previous book, and at one or two points the story almost made me tear up. Zoë is hands down one of the best female characters I've ever read. Wow. Seriously, wow
And this is where I was quite possibly so impressed by recent developments that I started expecting too much of the next couple of novels. Or maybe it's just really hard to follow up with something that lives up to Zoe's Tale. Books five and six of the Old Man's War series are collections of short stories and/or novellas, which fulfil the same function as the earlier books: to show various perspectives and developments that, pieced together, make up the overall (political) situation. Nothing is ever that easy or straightforward, and information (as well as misinformation) comes from different quarters and contains different data for various reasons.
Ever since The Last Colony, the Colonial Union has been opposed by the alien-led Conclave. And now the remaining humans living on overpopulated, technologically backwards Earth know that the Colonial Union has been deliberately keeping them ignorant, mining Earth for resources and new soldiers. In The Human Division (2013) they have to choose between staying with the CU or joining the Conclave—and thus making the CU their enemy. In this book you get a lot of Scalzi's usual diversity, like female high officials with male assistants, but in the end a lot of the female characters read somehow like gender-switched stereotypical male heroes. "'I'm going to go down with the ship,' Coloma said. 'And if I'm lucky, I'm going to take some of them with me.'" (p. 517)
You also get: exploding space stations and something like a super-damsel-in-distress situation (with that specific damsel's personal hero rescuing her in the vacuum of space, saving her from burning up in the atmosphere, etc). "'Life is full of little surpris—', Hirsch said, and then was sucked out into space [ . . . ]." (p. 511)
And this is when we get to The End of All Things. This book consists of four longer stories or novelettes that are all about the tension between the compromised CU and the weakening Conclave, with a third group, which calls itself Equilibrium, gradually having appeared from behind the scenery throughout The Human Division: In "The Life of the Mind" we are introduced to Rafe Daquin, who is now a brain in a box, captured by Equilibrium and forced to control a former cargo ship now used to fly attacks on the CU and/or the Conclave. It's all very 9/11 with a huge "I have no mouth . . . " trope mixed in. Watching the disembodied brain hack the ship's mainframe and find freedom even in captivity was fun, but this brain controlling a spaceship is definitely not as elegant as M. John Harrison's version in Light (2002). But then Scalzi isn't elegant. He's a chum. At the end of almost every episode you get a load of fast food and banter. Sometimes, as a friend of mine put it, reading Scalzi is like chewing gum for the brain.
"This Hollow Union" is about General Tarsem Gau's attempt to save the Conclave from its current crisis and to strengthen it under a new leader. (ATTENTION: MAJOR SPOILER AVOIDED RIGHT HERE.) It also contains an alien cautionary tale, which emphasises (a bit in-your-face) that the experience of violence should lead to empathy, not retaliation.
"Can Long Endure" is about the CDF's more than questionable methods of preventing Earth's interplanetary colonies from declaring independence, taking out rebel snipers, and "managing protests." By now we should have realised that "[t]he Colonial Union's a fascistic shit show, boss" (p. 291). Then again, "right now it's the only way we [humans] survive" (p. 292). This story is divided into even shorter episodes—in one case mercifully short, since it comes with Tarantino-style dialogues between CDF soldiers: "The pizza moon song?" (p. 243)—but it's also vital for the rest of the story, and it ties a lot of the other storylines together before taking them further towards the titular end of all things, for both the CU and the Conclave, should Equilibrium succeed. And the episode ends with a scene that I had been waiting for ever since book one: finally, one soldier cannot take it any more and just walks away into an unknown, insecure future—but at least one that he can ethically accept.
Finally, in "To Stand or Fall", we reach the big decision on all fronts. A lot of characters from previous episodes (plus some more from earlier books) get together to try and save humanity, the CU, and the Conclave from Equilibrium and from civil war. It is a difficult choice to make, and it's less about power relations than sheer survival, but in the end, after many in-your-face references to Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, it all seems very simple and very easily achieved: non-aggression pacts on all sides and a big strike on Equilibrium. Also, the solution for the colonies seems to be that what they ‘really want' is home rule rather than independence (pp. 347-8), which smells a bit more than funny to me. I really hope that there isn't just that one deserting soldier who disagrees with all these displays of jingoism and oppressive colonial politics. I really hope that the readers will have a good think too. The book ends with alternative versions and outtakes, a bit like a DVD collection of a TV series.
Don't get me wrong. I really enjoy Old Man's War as a military SF series that takes alien species and human teenagers seriously and gives them a voice, and which shows that in some cases even prisoners and detainees from different species can show enough respect for each other to become something not unlike friends—while still pointing out what's morally unsupportable about the whole situation. And I was really impressed by the whole concept of Zoe's Tale and by its main character. On the other hand, I thought that especially the last two books seemed a bit careless stylistically. It's not just that the constant banter can get a bit much and tends to make all characters sound the same. It's also that infodumps as small talk don't always work. Nobody talks about other people like the soldiers in "Can Long Endure" (p. 269). And nobody has to be reminded of the functions of their upgraded cloned bodies and supercomputer implants (as happens throughout the series, nearly every time we start another book).
It's nice to get an alien perspective on human/Earth concepts from time to time, as in the United Nations," a diplomatic corporation that was not actually the government of the Earth, but which pretended to be for situations like this" (p. 144). But a lot of the time, The Human Division, and increasingly The End of All Things, read very sloppy, as if the author cared more about making a deadline than about the writing itself. Phrases like "'Eller estimated twenty hours,' Han said, speaking of the chief engineer" (p. 36, my emphasis) just seem redundant and stylistically awkward. When an alien diplomat tells us "I slipped a basic robe onto my body" (p. 156, my emphasis)—well, onto what else would she slip it? The result is closer to a bad comic book adaptation than to really gripping SF—which it could have been, with a little more care and attention. I would love to read something more like Zoe's Tale again. I would also be really interested in Zoë's further career, as hinted at at the end of that book. But I wouldn't want to jinx it. I'd prefer not knowing to getting more of the same chewing gum SF.
Christina Scholz writes from Graz, Austria, where she is currently working on her PhD thesis on M. John Harrison’s fiction. She has published articles on science fiction, Weird fiction, and superhero comics in Alluvium and on Infinite Earths as well as short stories in The Big Click, Visionarium, and Wyrd Daze. She blogs at phoenixdreaming.wordpress.com.