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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The End of All Things by John Scalzi

"Humans expanded into space…only to find a universe populated with multiple alien species bent on their destruction. Thus was the Colonial Union formed, to help protect us from a hostile universe. The Colonial Union used the Earth and its excess population for colonists and soldiers. It was a good arrangement...for the Colonial Union. Then the Earth said: no more.
 
Now the Colonial Union is living on borrowed time—a couple of decades at most, before the ranks of the Colonial Defense Forces are depleted and the struggling human colonies are vulnerable to the alien species who have been waiting for the first sign of weakness, to drive humanity to ruin. And there’s another problem: A group, lurking in the darkness of space, playing human and alien against each other—and against their own kind —for their own unknown reasons.
 
In this collapsing universe, CDF Lieutenant Harry Wilson and the Colonial Union diplomats he works with race against the clock to discover who is behind attacks on the Union and on alien races, to seek peace with a suspicious, angry Earth, and keep humanity’s union intact...or else risk oblivion, and extinction—and the end of all things."
As the title says, this book is the end of the Old Man's War series. Not the end-end as John Scalzi clearly states in his self-described post-mortem of The End of all Things, but it is the end of the military/political situation we first became privy to in the book Old Man's War. I have not read all the books in this series to be honest. I have read Old Man's War, The Ghost Brigades, The Lost Colony and Zoe's Tale. Hmmm, that's all but one. Okay, I guess that means I really am qualified to have an opinion on the series.

I could sum up the series with the phrase, "it started out strong and ended weak," but that is not fair. As far as the writing is concerned, the last book was just as good as the first. The characters were interesting and engaging. The four stories (more on that in a moment) held my interest. There were new characters I liked. Even the bad guys were likable insomuch as they were evil bad guys. And there were enough characters from previous stories that continuity was maintained. No, "ended weak" would be entirely unfair.

I also would not want to say the story evolved. Using evolution as a metaphor has the connotation the changes to the military/political situation were beneficial to the overall series. I am not sure I can say that. I can say I enjoyed Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades because of that military/political situation. More so than I enjoyed this last book. Don't get me wrong though. I enjoyed The End of all Things. I just didn't enjoy it as much, No, it's not an evolution, merely a change. I believe it was a person choice by the writer. He says in his self-described post-mortem he thought his readers would enjoy the change more. I think he's rationalizing.  I'll support that opinion more in a bit.

Part of the reason I did not enjoy this book as much as the first two is the fact this isn't really a novel. It is four novellas put into novel format. The four parts were previously published as Life of the Mind, This Hollow Union, Can Long Endure, and To Stand or Fall. At first I found this format irritating. The first section ended without telling me what happened to the protagonist afterwords. I was mightily pissed about that. I really liked Rafe Daquin. But Scalzi corrected that in two of the remaining three novellas, so it was all good by the end of the book. The one section that did not have Rafe in it was mostly tangential to the overall arc of the book. To me it felt mostly like filler that could have been woven into the other three parts, but this book was already a little on the short side at 11 hours and 25 minutes. It did serve some illustrative purposes, and it was interesting, but it was not needed to understand the overall military/political changes happening. Bottom line: the format was off putting, but not as much as was The Human Division, which I did not read because of all the negativity about it in other reviews I read. Thank god Scalzi says he never plans to do it again.

Now, back to that rationalization comment. Here is what Scalzi himself had to say in the blog post I linked above,
"However, The End of All Things ends this particular story arc in the OMW universe, and at the moment in time there are no other OMW books planned. I have other things I want to write and do, and six books is enough for now. My philosophy behind writing the OMW series (which I expect I will extend to any series I do) is only write books in the series if I enjoy the process and have someplace new to take the universe. Grinding out books in a series is a drag for both writer and reader. I have better things to do than crank out books in a series just for the cash, and you have better things to do than to read a book created in those circumstances. So while I never say never to more OMW books, for the moment, this is it."
I was not tired of Old Man's War and Ghost Brigade style space opera from Scalzi. I would have paid for more like them, even if they weren't quite as good. The bottom line is John Michael Scalzi the second got tired of writing them. He got tired of writing militaristic space opera where it's kill or be killed. Instead, he'd rather write about more... jees, is there a nice way to say it... "philosophical" things? He wants to write about things that are not Old Man's War bang-bang shoot-them-up stuff. Frankly I don't know what the hell he wants to write about. And that said, I don't know if I want to read them.

One of the nice things about a series is you know what you're buying. If I pick up a Dresden Files book, I know what that's going to be like. If I pick up an Ancillary book, I know what that's going to be like. If I pick up a Thrones book, I know what it is going to be like. That's why they tend to be cash cows. But John Scalzi isn't content with being an author just to provide entertainment to his readers. He seems to want to be an artist, a literary tour de force. He's on some sort of personal improvement trek. I can't begrudge him that, but perhaps he should look at changing genre if he wants to pursue that goal. I don't think trade fiction is going to get him there, and he's likely to upset the fan base if he tries. Can anyone who has read the Old Man's War series say they are just as satisfied with the last as the first?

Scalzi is correct in that we have better things to do then read a book a writer didn't want to write in the first place. But he man needs to tread carefully. Not all of his current fans will be willing to simply follow where he goes. He states he has trouble with beginnings. Well, changing what you write about and how you write it is the mother of all beginnings - or should a say new beginnings. I'd ask Mr. Scalzi to look at the nearly 20 years it's taken for him to get where he is, and then ask if he can afford to commit the next 20 to rebuilding. Of course, he now has contacts, allies, etc. to help him speed up that process. But in the publishing business sales is king, and if you haven't got them you don't get published. At least not by the big companies with the ultra-distribution channels.

Anyway, I'm digressing from a book review into something more personal and it's time to yank it back. I've just been experiencing a growing dissatisfaction with the direction John Scalzi's work has taken and wanted to say so. I know others who are quite pleased with it, but they didn't really like Old Man's War. I think that is the defining statement in this review. If you really, really liked Old Man's War, this book really is The End of all Things. It will not please you nearly as much as you might hope. However, you should probably read this book just for closure. If you didn't like the militaristic bent of Old Man's War, then you'll likely be relieved it's over and should read this book to see how Scalzi corrected what you perceived as the mistakes of Old Man's War. Regardless, the Old Man's War universe is gone, replaced by something that is not the Old Man's War universe, and I am somewhat saddened by that knowledge.

4 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed The Human Division, keeping in mind that he was releasing it chapter by chapter. This reminded me of his "Agent to the Stars" book which he had done in a similar way. It gave you a healthy dose of Scalzi on a regular basis but it also turned the event of reading a book into that of watching a classic TV show: You were presented with a cliffhanger and had to wait for the next episode. Might not have been everybody's cup of tea.

    I like to believe that Scalzi never intended to write a follow up to OMW but got caught up in it's success. So he delivered but not happily. Now he has other things which need attention (e.g. [Redshirts TV series](https://www.reddit.com/r/scifi/comments/2ruxbd/whats_the_latest_on_the_redshirts_miniseries_on_fx/) which gives him a good excuse to put a lid on it and ignore that Universe for a while. I enjoyed reading this one, simply because I like his way of banter and world building. It did not make me think or shake my world view but it entertained me for a while.

    I am having trouble finding similar SF at the moment (I hated the Ancillary book). While not the same type of SF I am looking forward to the latest Vorkosigan novel. The previous ones have slowly turned into space romance but I am willing to give it another try. If you haven't done so, try reading the early Vorkosigan books (start with Warrior's Apprentice).

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    1. You've a very good point about him getting caught up in the success of Old Man's War. It is rather out of character for him as a person IMO. On a different note, can't wait for Red Shirts!

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    3. TEOAT was a nice read but nothing exceptional, the fact I know the setting by now is probably one of the reasons it doesn't stand out. The Human Division was better but I unlike OMW or Ghost Brigade I had to look at my shelf to see what the book was about again.

      Unlike Blindsight by Peter Watts (available for free!) which I still think about after reading it 6 months ago. Although I consider it more of a cosmic horror story as the hard SF it is :)

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