This is more like it; two Hugo nominees in a row that are a pleasure to read! I'd originally read John Scalzi's The Last Colony (Tor, 2007; editor: Patrick Nielsen Hayden) last year along with the first two books in the trilogy. I don't much care for giving Hugos to series books that can't stand alone, but after giving myself almost a year to forget the first two books (or at least blur my memories to not much more than I get from the back-blurb) I'm pleased to report on reread that I think this book works on its own. This is classic science fiction: a fast-paced yarn with planets and spaceships and aliens and a warm, fuzzy ending. It's not deep or philosophically ambitious, but it's a fun, fun read.
John Perry and Jane Sagan are retired soldiers from humanity's Colonial Defense Forces, both with new, freshly grown bodies, living in happy retirement with their adopted daughter Zoë on the colony planet Huckleberry. Despite some minor (and humorous) interruptions by feuding locals, their life is idyllic. Zoë is companioned by a pair of aliens (cheerfully dubbed Hickory and Dickory) whose consciousness and emotions can be turned on and off. The why of all this was explained in the two previous novels, but enough summary is provided in an efficient opening monologue for the new reader to manage, and Scalzi provides background details as needed throughout.
John and Jane are recruited to lead a startup colony in defiance of the ban on colonization promulgated by the alliance of alien races known as the Conclave, which will destroy any new colonies that it discovers. Complications and politics ensue. The colony name of Roanoke is hardly coincidental; I was reminded of C. J. Cherryh's Forty Thousand in Gehenna. The aliens prove in some cases to be more sympathetic than the human politicians and soldiers from the Colonial Union, and John and Jane must somehow find a way to preserve their colony (and their lives) from the machinations of both groups. Scalzi manages to shift nicely from the micro to the macro in the survival challenges of the Roanoke colonists and, eventually, the entire human colonization effort. Battle scenes (brief and not obsessively detailed) range from former Special Forces soldier Jane as a one-woman whirlwind (with flamethrower, knife, and shoulder-launched missile) to the destruction of hundreds of spaceships.
I love Scalzi's humorous way with details. The opening comedic set piece with the goat. The varying methods of choosing the colonists. Fur trees and tree fleas. John and Jane's sarcastic assistant Savitri. The fuglies and the fanties. The Viagra metaphor. John and Jane coping with an annoying reporter:
"Oh, come on," Kranjic said. "If they were going to eat us they would have done it by now. Look." He started to inch closer to the things.
"Should we let him do that?" I asked Jane.
Jane shrugged. "We haven't technically started the colony yet."
"Good point," I said.
Scalzi also manages to drop his in-jokes into the book with just the right lightness of touch to give the informed reader a brief chuckle without disrupting his storytelling. Lieutenant Stross, the spacegoing (and spacey) soldier and PhD student, is clearly a Tuckerization of Charles Stross. "It's an honor just to be nominated" will amuse anyone who has heard the phrase repeatedly in connection with the Hugos, as Scalzi undoubtedly has.
There's more than a touch of the deus ex machina in the colonists' success in one battle, but I was sufficiently entertained overall to let it slide. My only real problem with this book was the peculiar insertion of a mystery race of indigenous intelligent predators. There was a lot of buildup and eventually a confrontation, but it all had no connection to the rest of the plot and seemed an overly elaborate way of reinforcing what we already knew by that point, which was that the colonists weren't told everything about Roanoke. Since an alien armada about to turn the colony into a smoking ruin is a much larger threat than primitive aliens with a taste for butchery, the whole thing was an unnecessary distraction.
(Spoilers in this paragraph for both The Last Colony and Rollback)
I experienced a strong sense of déjà vu while reading Rollback, but it took the reread of The Last Colony for me to figure it out. Rollback: old man is physically returned to youth, falls in love with woman who is a lot like his deceased first wife, adopts children, returns for poignant scene at deceased wife's grave. The Last Colony: old man is physically returned to youth, falls in love with woman who is a lot like his deceased first wife, adopts child, returns for poignant scene at deceased wife's grave. Twin novels separated from birth by the Tor editorial process? Nurture beats nature: Scalzi handles the same basic elements much, much better than Sawyer does.
(Okay, done now, return to spoiler-free reading)
Scalzi claims in the final acknowledgments (written in 2006) that he's through with this particular universe, but that decision doesn't seem to have stuck for long. A fourth book, Zoe's Tale, is scheduled for release in August, with Scalzi pulling Orson Scott Card's trick of retelling the story of The Last Colony from a different viewpoint. Since Zoë goes off on her own critically-important mission for part of the story and since Scalzi does not share Card's fascination with writing about miserable and abused children, I'm hopeful that this will be more interesting than Ender's Shadow was.
I liked The Last Colony almost as much as Halting State, but the latter wins it with me on overall ambition and sheer geek joy. My Hugo ballot as it stands three days before the voting deadline:
1. Halting State
2. The Last Colony
5. The Yiddish Policemen's Union
One nominee to go! I know the least about Brasyl and have no idea whether it will fit neatly into slot #3 or whether I will be rearranging other nominees to accommodate it.
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