I have to confess that John Scalzi is the first 'new' science fiction author I've read in quite some time. With a limited budget for full-price books, I'm reluctant to risk my money on something I might not enjoy (or be prompted to re-read umpteen million times over the next five or six decades).
Having made a commitment a couple of years ago to re-enter fandom, I did feel it was necessary to catch up on all the happenings, which meant that it would be important to read some contemporary works (if only to be able to discuss authoritatively about how rotten they all were compared to the classics).
I will also confess that the references to Scalzi's 'Heinlienness' on his book's cover was what tipped me over into shelling out 8 or 9 bucks for a PAPERBACK! (Honestly, I still have books that I paid 45 cents for when they were new). That and his accessibility on his Whatever blog; the man obviously wrote well, took the genre seriously, paid due homage to his forebears, had interesting things to say, exhibited some bizarre and entertaining behaviors and answered his emails.
In the weeks just prior to picking up Old Man's War (the first in the series), I had been reading Spider Robinson's 'completion' of the LAST HEINLEIN NOVEL EVER. I found it flat, uneven, claustrophobic and disappointing. Sticking both Robinson's and Heinlein's names on the cover misled me into believing that Spider was going to try to write a Heinlein novel, not a Spider novel.
No such illusion existed while I read OMW. Only Scalzi's name appeared on the cover. The references to Heinlein were clearly advertising copy, not a scam.
I thoroughly enjoyed Old Man's War and appreciated its opening premise (not to mention the opening line): when you're 75 and offered a new lease on life, you don't worry about the details too much.
John Perry is/was an intriguing character, the type of everyday competent that Heinlein enjoyed using as his main character, with an interesting Scalzi twist: the young recruit is also the wise old man.
I had a bit of an issue with the idea that the galaxy was such a widely violent place and that so many different alien species found a place for humans on their dinner menu, but after thinking about it for a while and accepting the initial premise that real estate is scarce and no one seems interested in population control, I've come to accept it as part of the background. (I'm completely ignoring the physical impossibility of using stellar colonies to solve population problems, because everyone in the genre seems to be happily ignoring it as well.)
I found his action sequences to be gripping and fairly tactically correct. His depiction of what soldiers are willing to do when they have little fear of death and none of injury seemed so spot on that it even prompted a short email exchange between John and I. (Whether he had ever played paintball or not - Not - because his troops exhibited the same suicidal tactics that professional paintball players engage in, which is the primary difference between 'real' war and game war.)
I got deeper into it with The Ghost Brigades. I thought the murder mystery aspects of that novel were handled well, but I did have a bit of unease over intelligence transfer technology: for example, if you could make one copy of the ideal soldier - why not make multiple copies? Why bother to import untrained recruits from Earth at all?
But I enjoyed it nevertheless (hell, Niven has spawned an entire cottage industry with 'what ifs?' from his Known Space stories).
Both novels clearly illustrate one salient fact: Scalzi enjoys entertaining. He's not afraid to take a bizarre idea and throw it against the wall to see what sticks. The sheer joy exhibited in his writing, the earnestness with which he seeks to get us to play 'make-believe' just for the sheer fun of it, easily allowed me to brush past these kinds of questions in favor of simply enjoying the story.
The same was true for The Last Colony. I had some minor major issues with the sheer stupidity of the Colonial Unions's political strategies. (Spoiler: No one in the upper echelons of the CU could predict that the destruction of the Conclave's 412 ship fleet - one from every member race of the Conclave - wouldn't turn the Conclave rabid? They actually thought it would slow the Conclave down? This from a species with The Alamo, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 in its history?)
Scalzi did do a little mending at the end by portraying the CU as fairly dimwitted, but that is equally problematic as heretofore the CU has been responsible for earning a place for humanity in a very hostile galaxy.
Continuing on the critical bent, I had some minor issues with Zoe the character: I'm not entirely clear on how old she is here and she seemed a bit 'too' sophisticated for a mid-teenaged girl. On the other hand, Podkayne was pretty sophisticated for her age and we really don't get to see all that much of Zoe, the detail obviously having been reserved for Zoe's Tale, the recently released 5th book in the series (#5 if you count Sagan's Diary, which I do).
I will wait until I've read ZT to render final judgment, since everyone seems to be saying that Scalzi's portrayal of nubile female teenagers is pretty darned good. (Which is a scary thought if you've ever been exposed to Scalzi's sense of humor at Whatever.)
I liked Hickory and Dickory, had a bit of a problem with the Consu's Deus ex Machina introduced towards the end of the story (but then it wouldn't BE a D.E.M. if it didn't enter at the end) and felt that all in all, the Conclave exhibited as much stupidity as the Colonial Union did it its dealings with the Last Colony. The ending, which neatly wrapped up this series of tales, neatly wrapped it up, although, again, niggly little issues with the ease with which Perry and Sagan were able to circumvent the C.U.
But. But. BUT.
I enjoyed the whole thing. When your friend is making up a story to thrill, amaze, entertain and share friendship with you, you don't constantly interrupt them with worry over the details. Later on, when you're out playing in the backyard and those things come up, you get to make up more stuff; rather than becoming a show stopper like a call to dinner, they become part of the entertainment.
I don't think Scalzi ever set out to write the most logical, tightly scripted series of SF novels about warfare, interstellar conquest and galactic politics. I think he came up with a nifty idea, firmly grounded it in SF literary tradition and then wrote it to entertain and amuse. All of which he amply - and humorously - accomplished.
Highlights: Giant space battle fleets, new colonies, John Perry, Jane Sagan and Zoe Boutin
Key Themes: interstellar war, the politics of empire, colonization
Datedness: Totally NEW
Audience: Any old time fan who's been disappointed by the 'new' science fiction, anyone who can't handle post-singularity, steampunk or cyberpunk SF, any new fan who likes a thoughtful, entertaining and action-oriented story
What did you think of this review?