Old Man’s War
The Ghost Brigades
The Last Colony
What better inaugural post for Two Dudes in an Attic than John Scalzi’s subversive military sci-fi trilogy? Since publishing Old Man’s War, Scalzi has rocketed to fame among the SF community, which can’t seem to get enough of his Heinlein-ian prose, snappy repartee and gleeful violence. This trilogy, like a Pat Metheny Group album, is easy on the palate and engages both the core and casual fans. Like Metheny’s pleasant melodies though, the sugar-coated action masks underlying complexity. The reader may anticipate a breezy shoot-‘em-up, but quickly finds upended tropes careening madly through the space battles. Scalzi starts out small, with Old Man’s War content merely to tweak the conventions of mil-SF. He follows with a veiled meditation on identity and consciousness, before opening up a broadside against an entire worldview in The Last Colony.
I’ll start with some general comments first, then move into more spoilerific territory. (If you, gentle reader, haven’t taken in Old Man’s War yet, and there must be a few out there, pick them up and start. It’s quickly becoming a vital part of the contemporary SF landscape.) Scalzi, by his own admission, writes accessible, smooth prose. No doubt it stems from a successful career writing non-fiction, as his books are refreshingly free of bloat. He says what needs to be said, leaves the rest to the imagination, and keeps the story moving. Don’t get me wrong – vast world building and intricate settings are great, but sometimes it’s pleasant to read something that just glides. It is important not to mistake brevity for simplicity, though, as these books offer depth to the reader who wants to look for it. Again, we’re not talking Tolstoy here, but if the reader wants to think, Scalzi will engage. Of course, if the reader is just looking for explosions and battles, Scalzi delivers there as well.
Scalzi’s future can be explained in a few broad strokes. Humanity has expanded to the stars and found intelligent life. The organization responsible for this, the Colonial Defense Force (CDF), has elected to keep Earth in a sheltered and ignorant state. Overcrowded nations provide colonists, while citizens of N. America and Europe see their lives continue more or less unchanged. At the age of 75, people are allowed to enlist in the CDF and head out for parts unknown. What happens after this is a carefully guarded secret; as a result, a bunch of old people with nothing tying them to Earth sign up and leave, never to be heard from again. On to the spoilers.
Much of the fun in Old Man’s War is watching Scalzi pervert the standard mil-SF tropes. No coming of age stories here – all the characters are wrinkly and, er, wise. Well, only wrinkly until they get their new super bodies and become awesome. This is not to say that the characters don’t change and develop: few of them were soldiers of any sort before, so adjusting from retired insurance salesman to superhuman warrior is a narrative all by itself. The hero, John Perry, is hardly the archetypal warrior hero. His big motivation, other than survival, is loving his wife. Not too bloodthirsty there. Nor is he especially stoic, honorable, or valorous. John Perry is a great guy, of course, but he’s not exactly what one might expect in a story of military heroism and killer aliens. Regardless, the narrative arc proceeds more or less as one might expect, but there are hints at the end that greater themes await.
The Ghost Brigades takes the story in a different direction. Were I to speculate, I would guess that Scalzi decided that Perry’s story was pretty much over, but still wanted to explore his universe. Again, fast-paced action abounds, but Scalzi’s philosophy background bubbles up to the surface. I would rank this much lower on the subversion register than the other two books, but the clash remains between gun battles and meditations on identity. There are again hints of imminent chaos, in greater strength and numbers than the first book, but Scalzi again refrains from showing his hand. I wonder how much was planned at this point, or if he looked back and discovered that he’d inadvertently laid the groundwork for a volcano in the third book.
The Last Colony brings back John Perry, this time with family in tow. They have become administrators of a clandestine colony set up by the CDF, in defiance of a broad treaty set up by The Conclave. The Conclave is a loose federation of races that are seeing institutional ways to reduce the constant warfare that uncontrolled expansion has set off. The CDF, in good human fashion, resents any infringement on human sovereignty and is using Perry’s colony as a way to strike a blow against the Conclave.
It is now time to be pedantic. Scalzi doesn’t strike me as a foreign policy wonk, but he must have taken a few international relations classes back in the day. Early in Old Man’s War, one of Perry’s instructors explains the universe as a dog-eat-dog universe, where the strong prey on the weak and humanity must fight and claw for every colony in a finite and shrinking pool of opportunity. Change a few words here and there, and we have a spot-on summary of the international relations worldview called Realism, which has dominated foreign policy thought as long as there has been such thought. Now in The Last Colony, The Conclave appears, trying to build a voluntary institution that creates opportunities for dialog, self-enforced regulation that limits conflict, and chances for cooperation that would eliminate the zero-sum nature of the galactic conflict. Here, in a nutshell, is Liberalism, the eternal rival of Realism.
I will leave political science alone for the rest of this post, except to say that Realism and Liberalism fight an unending battle through the global foreign policy community. Politicians argue about it, academics claw each other’s academic eyes out, think tanks go back and forth about it. Anyone plugged into the debate can recite its terms in their sleep. And here comes John Scalzi, who has built a Realist future history through two books, dropping tantalizing hints hither and yon of larger forces afoot, blowing the whole thing up in his third book and letting the Liberal Conclave run wild. I could barely contain myself.
I admit to being a foreign policy nerd. If I could stand to live in DC, I’d be on the East Coast slaving away at a policy analyst desk for the Council on Foreign Relations or something. I read books like Man, The State, and War when I go to the beach, so one might imagine why I would pee my pants at this kind of sci-fi. The Last Colony speaks to me on a level that most readers may not appreciate; this is why I label the whole thing “subversive” and get such a kick out of it, but Scalzi’s popularity shows that this trilogy speaks to people far beyond the “Sci-Fi and Diplomacy” demographic. I enjoyed the first book, thought the second was pretty cool, and was a raving, drooling fanboy by the end of the third.
Rating: Derby night in Istanbul. The football on display might not be the most artistic around, but there is no better time to be had. Also, things may catch on fire at any moment.