Because all of life is stories.
John Scalzi is a terrific son of a bitch. He writes this great sci-fi/space opera/military/political thriller, makes it really engaging, populates it with really cool people (Human and Alien alike) and makes it all just so damn fun. If I didn’t love his books, I’m pretty sure I’d hate him. At the very least, I’m jealous of his talent. His immense fucking talent.
Anyways, his most recent book, The End of All Things, is a continuation of and end of the story he began telling in The Human Division, which in itself is the 5th book of the Old Man’s War series. As it is difficult to do this review without including at least a few minor spoilers, I will mention this now; there are a few minor spoilers.
The End of All Things, and The Human Division before it, are a series of novellas combined into episodic books that tell the story of various soldiers and diplomats and runaway dogs in Scalzi’s vast universe. At this advanced point in the story, we follow along as humanity finds itself rent asunder into the Colonial Union and Earth. Earth is, well, Earth. The Colonial Union is the multi-planet empire that has risen up as the result of humans leaving Earth behind and colonizing, but also, and I’m paraphrasing, “killing the shit out of any alien that wants to kill them.” Understandably, this has given rise to a somewhat tense time in the galaxy. And just as it seems that cooler heads might begin to prevail, the assholes arrive to punch everyone in the throat and make them blame it on each other.
What’s so refreshing about this book and its predecessor is the format. And it’s not just that it’s released as a series of novellas before the full book becomes available. While that is cool, and gives you good stories at a decent clip without having to wait for the whole novel, it isn’t the best thing. The best thing is the array of stories that it lets Scalzi tell. Because they are all released separately they all have to tell a complete story, in addition to being a larger part of a whole. I can dive in to the story of a brain in a jar and be just as hooked and satisfied as the story about the world quite possibly coming to an end before everyone’s waffles are done. Never do I feel like Scalzi has just thrown a chapter in to pad length or distract us while the characters get from Interesting Point A to Interesting Point B. It’s all necessary, it’s all compelling, and hell if all of it isn’t fun.
The difference in tone from story to story is another bit of refreshing and fun, and Scalzi demonstrates his range of voice in all of these. I can tell very much when Lt. Harry Wilson is narrating a story. He’s sarcastic in a way that is distinctly separate from the other characters. His pace is fairly fast. He has the air of a man who knows what is right, how to do it, and can’t quite be bothered to show everyone else a version of himself that isn’t a sarcastic and sometimes lazy pain in the ass. Despite all of this, he’s probably one of the most useful humans in the universe. Rafe Daquin has his share of sarcastic moments, but the bravado of a pilot and a programmer in his element is noticeable. The way he thinks through problems, the deservedly smug way he communicates to others and himself screams “I am pissed, I am bigger than you, and if all of the air vents from this room I’m the only one that won’t die.” And I still love him. Scalzi has built up a charming cast in the last six books, and has no problems using them to greatest effect whenever it suits his purpose.
If you’re looking for James Joyce, you won’t find it in John Scalzi. His writing is accessible, unpretentious, and fun. This, I think, leads some people to wrongly interpret his writing as stupid or low or bad. Scalzi, for me anyways, offers up the very best of what the space opera as a subgenre has to offer. It is a low bar to entry for new fans wanting a way into the worlds of people like Lois McMaster Bujold, David Weber, and Robert Heinlein. It isn’t pretentious, and it manages to be entertaining and fun while still presenting us with big questions about our place in the universe and what it will take to stop us from being such assholes to each other. And it manages to do so with such apparent ease and grace that I am forced to circle back to the beginning of this review and reiterate just how damned jealous I am of John Scalzi for being able to do it.
But then I remember there are scenes with brains in boxes performing space acrobatics with military space frigates and just the right amount of snark that I forget my jealousy for a moment and keep reading.