The Last Colony
By John Scalzi
Tor Books, 2007, hardcover: 320 pp., US$23.95
The Last Colony may be the perfect summer paperback.
John Scalzi has apparently perfected the art of the page-turner. I picked this book up at lunch time, started reading it on the bus home, and only went to sleep at about 3 a.m. when I finished. Along the way I missed: (a) my bus stop, (b) dinner, and obviously, (c) bedtime.
True: writing a gripping story is not quite the same as writing a great novel, although which is the greater accomplishment may be open to discussion. Scalzi succeeds at the former without attempting the latter.
The Last Colony completes a series, and does so with the impressive accomplishment of working brilliantly as a stand-alone novel. I haven't read Old Man's War or Ghost Brigades—
In time-honored tradition, tranquility is disrupted when the two are called out of retirement. A new colony is being formed under unusual circumstances, and John and Jane are being asked to lead it.
At first it looks like this is going to be a novel about political intrigue and the challenges of bringing a diverse colony together under trying circumstances. Implausibly, the colony world is named Roanoke, so the American readers will expect starvation, disease and hostile natives, resulting in catastrophic failure. Actually, I predict that no interstellar colony will ever be named Roanoke, and I had to question Scalzi's choice here. He was making a point, but Scalzi's cultural references tend toward the unsubtle. (Like naming a post-human special ops character Stross.)
The novel takes some twists and turns, flirting with the military sub-genre, full-on space opera, and high imperial intrigue, as well as the aforementioned colony trope.
Throughout, two factors drive this story: character and mystery.
Even before the colonists arrive at the wrong planet, with no option to turn back, Scalzi lays the groundwork for his mystery. John learns that the supplies on board are, to say the least, unusual. Jane discovers that her biochemistry has been altered against her will: she has been given back the special-ops talents that once made her both more and less than human. The alien bodyguards of their adopted daughter have a raised-eyebrows sort of conversation with John. We already knew the colony was going to be a challenge; but with all these other puzzles in play, the mystery is well and truly on.
Scalzi paces his mystery perfectly. The onion has layers, and each peeling reveals a problem more intractable than the one before. Best of all, the payoff is dead-on. Not every aspect of the unfolding makes perfect sense, but Scalzi employs misdirection well, and the sheer beauty of the developments lead readers to forgive any small unlikelihoods and red herrings along the way.
Then there are the characters. John Perry, the protagonist of this series, is a laid-back smartass surrounded by somewhat less laid-back smartasses. Scalzi's dialog is never less than entertaining, and often laugh-out-loud funny. The interplay between John and his assistant Savitri is always amusing, and Scalzi does a particularly nice job of bringing that dynamic back around: the book opens with a truly enjoyable scene involving these two, and although the high tension of the book lets this drop in the middle, it is more of their witty banter that brings a perfect conclusion to the book.
The relationship between John and Jane is also enjoyable: it's fun to read about a healthy, happy marriage in which partners support and complement each other. You can enjoy these two, and—
Scalzi's minor characters don't stand out quite so vividly, but are almost universally sympathetic. And I don't just mean that the villains have plausible motivations, I mean that you have to work hard to find an actual villain in this book. By the very end, we do get one reasonably villainous character, but I'm convinced that the only reason the reader is left with such an impression is that the author doesn't give him a chance to explain himself. Everyone else granted that opportunity turns out to be a genuinely nice person put in an unfortunate position by regrettable circumstance. Of course, there are some off-camera bureaucrats who we assume are either villainous or stupid, but isn't that how bureaucrats work anyway? Off-camera?
The Last Colony is practically flawless in its capacity as a readable story, but I'm not sure its anything more than a good story.
Let me explain.
In the first place, there is the fact, already mentioned, that everyone turns out to be nice. While entertaining, these characters aren't exactly memorable. The most memorable character—
In particular, Scalzi missed an opportunity to take this book deeper with the character of Jane. Created by the military as a fully formed adult, she has had her tenuous humanity withdrawn against her will—
Similarly, Zoë is the daughter of an infamous traitor, protected by those he betrayed humanity to. She is a teenage orphan with every right to use her powers for selfish gain, to hold adolescent resentments against one or both sides of that difficult equation, or against her adopted parents who uproot her settled life and convey her to the only place more provincial than her backwater farming town—
Stepping back from the characters, there's another mystery in this world that Scalzi doesn't solve. Why does anyone care about colonization? A little handwaving toward the beginning suggests that there aren't enough habitable planets to go around and that the various alien races are all squabbling over a resource that's in short supply. Now, it's entirely possible that this was the central thrust of one or both of the prior books, and this apparent failing is due to my dropping in late. That's always a risk with any series. But in all other respects The Last Colony was such an excellent stand-alone novel, this baffling absence of economic imperative felt like a major gap.
Clearly, it will take decades—
Another factor that some readers may find disappointing is that there's no particular science in this science fiction. It breaks very little new ground. The only thing that caught my attention as being original was a defensive weapon, late in the book, that magically interferes with kinetic energy. It was very much a deus ex machina to facilitate the resolution. This is not science fiction of Big Ideas.
The plot itself, while continuously engaging, is not a perfect jewel. For example, firmly in the tradition of planetary colonization stories, the settlers have some mysterious stuff to deal with on their new planet. Dangerous rodents? Intelligent natives? Biochemical oddity? This mystery builds and comes to a head, but ultimately it serves no point in the novel itself. The events, outcomes, and consequences of this subplot have no particular bearing on the arc of the novel as a whole.
Great science fiction is sometimes remembered for the Big Idea, and sometimes for the haunting sense of wonder (popularly known as Sensawunda). Neither of these require a tightly-woven, gripping story to succeed, and indeed some of the classic works of science fiction are neither literary masterpieces nor brilliant page-turners.
The Last Colony doesn't offer a Big Idea, and, to this reader, it doesn't demonstrate much Sensawunda either. Of course, that's a highly subjective quality, but Scalzi does not linger on descriptive passages or tarry to explore the inner workings of humanity or universe: he drives this story along with whips.
Perhaps it is simply a matter of pacing that defines the tension between story and substance. Certainly there are novels such as The Last Colony that consume the reader for a few enjoyable hours. In contrast, the novels we remember as great works may offer food for thought or nourishment for the imagination; they may be savored and slowly digested until they ultimately become a part of the reader.
John Scalzi did not fail to write a great novel, because that was clearly not his aim. The Last Colony is a perfect book for a day at the beach or a tedious plane ride. It's a dangerous book to pick up when you need to be sharp the next day.
I can certainly see why it has been nominated for a Hugo. As with Robert Sawyer's Rollback, I can't say I was persuaded that this was a great and memorable high point in the history of science fiction, but it's so much fun I wouldn't be at all surprised if it placed very well in the final standings.