The Short Version: After humanity begins to colonize the stars, Earth becomes a bit of a backwater planet – and the best way to get off of it, after having lived a full life, is to sign up for the Colonial Defense Force. No one knows how, exactly, they intend to take a fighting force of septuagenarians and defend a galactic mini-empire… but, then, there’s a LOT John Perry doesn’t know about what’s really happening out in space…
The Review: Reader, I have been itching for some serious sci-fi of late. It comes upon me from time to time, that itch. Yet I so often find myself disappointed by my secret/guilty-pleasure favorite part of the genre: the space opera. I love my Star Trek and Star Wars – and as a younger man I read many a novel that explored the stars. But retrospectively… I don’t know, so many of them are so blah. It’s the same way with fantasy novels, although I find (for whatever reason) that I can stomach blah fantasy better than blah sci-fi. But for every Dune or original PERN trilogy, there are seventeen other books (even in those series) that just make me roll my eyes so hard they nearly fall out. And yeah, I’m talking stories set in the Star Wars / Star Trek universes too (although I do admit, I want to read “The New Jedi Order” and its ensuing story arc sequels…) – people just get sloppy with their writing.
So, you can forgive my reticence and trepidation when approaching any new sci-fi space opera series, yes? It was this or Kevin J. Anderson’s Saga of Seven Suns (which I do think I’ll get to at some point sooner than later) and something about this – the size, perhaps, or the fact that the newest installment in the series is being published in online serial format before its physical publication or even all the talk of his newest book, Redshirts – grabbed me first. And I’m genuinely glad it did – it provided exactly the rip-snorting sci-fi adventure I was looking for, with just that added dash of brains and wit to keep me from feeling like I was at all slumming it (much as I love genre, sometimes… you know…).
For the most part, the book is really just quite a lot of Scalzi going through the motions and hitting his marks – but also trying to distinguish himself too. It is not unlike how our hero John Perry moves through his basic training as a CDF soldier: he does everything expected of him and manages to earn some grudging respect by doing it intelligently and even changing it up a bit while it happens. We’ve got lots of aliens, lots of fighting, quite a bit of theoretical physics told in simple bite-sized portions, some sex and some space travel, and a future that looks enough unlike our present that we feel it to be both possible and impossible – but we’ve got it all wrapped up in a tale well-told, with complex subplots that don’t seem to be anywhere near revealed just yet.
I like the twist Scalzi introduces right from the start: this notion of old people being the “ideal” recruits for an army except for the pesky fact of their rapidly failing bodies. It’s a smart concept and he dispatches with it well, using the Avatar concept (although, if I’m not mistaken, Scalzi’s came first…) of a neural link – only this one is a transference, not a projection. It’s fun to be introduced to a character (to several) who have had these lives – they’ve lived entire, full lives on Earth – and are now basically starting over again from 20. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of sex. Also a lot of violence. The violence comes later.
If there’s one thing I want more of (and this would, absolutely, be the reason I’ve already picked up book two with the intention to burn through it tomorrow/Thursday), it’s universe-building. We’ve established that Earth is cut off from everything, that there are dozens of human colonies and hundreds of non-Earth (bordering on anti-Earth, from the sounds of it) colonies and races. I love that – I love the messy, busy universe that we’re presented with here. Way more fun to consider MOST stars being with lifeforms than it being a few and far between sort of situation. I love that Scalzi presents us with a humanity – not just Americans, although it’s somewhat clear that the American… ahem… spirit is the one that leads the CDF forward – that is violent and stupid and out of its depth but pushing forward anyway. There’s a scene where a former US Senator gets joins Perry’s squad and preaches that the CDF is too quick to fight, they should try more diplomacy! And it’s such a wonderful message, you start wondering if he’s right…
I won’t tell you what happens to him but you can probably guess. Hell, I did the minute he walked onstage. So Scalzi manages to get all angles in, politically, and he also keeps our heroes human – a particularly difficult assignment, all things considered. Because what is being human? Is it our bodies, our minds, our souls? When do we stop being human and become something else? Big questions, none of which have or are expected to have easy (or even findable) answers – and Scalzi doesn’t treat them like they should. But some of those little moments of humanity (Perry’s recounting of how he fell in love with his wife, over Romeo & Juliet, was drop dead beautiful) elevate the novel beyond just a normal ARMIES IN SPACE! type story.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I’m operating on a dual standard here. I don’t think this book was necessarily exceptional – it’s very well done, funny, packed with action, and a quick read… but it’s simply all of those things that I needed executed well. The thing is, such a book existing in a genre that I often am let down by makes it, inherently, somewhat exceptional. But I went straight out and bought the sequel yesterday (before even finishing this book) and it’ll be the next thing I read – so, maybe that’s endorsement enough.