Friday, July 12, 2013

Review of The Last Colony by John Scalzi

John Scalzi has numerous fingers in the science fiction pie.  From writer to editor, blogger to being past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the man’s life appears to resonate the genre.  His novels a mix of Silver Age motifs with more contemporary ideologies, the third book in the Old Man’s War series, called The Last Colony, is no exception. 
Following on the heels of the success of the Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades, the novel continues the story of John Perry, Jane Sagan and their daughter, Zoe.  Now in old age, the couple think they have settled into the twilight of their lives to live a life of peace with their daughter.  However, when members of the Colonial Union approach and ask them to oversee a new colony—a colony for the future—the two accept and are sent to the planet Roanoke with a team and supplies.  Or so they are told.  Arriving at Roanoke, things quickly disintegrate.  Information they thought was factual turns out to be manipulative lies, and when the Conclave becomes involved, events only become more complicated.  Before too long Perry and Sagan’s peaceful retirement plans come falling apart.  What are the Union’s plans for the colony, and why does the Conclave care about such an out-of-the-way place, well, that is for the reader to find out.

The positive elements of The Last Colony are few, but what is lacking in quantity is made up for in quality.  Scalzi keeps the pace brisk and does a reasonably good job at maintaining tension.  But where he excels is conflict resolution.  Violence does occur, but the overall focus on negotiated rather than hostile outcomes is a credit to Scalzi’s ambitions.  Le Guinian in feel, the manner in which the Conclave, Union, Perry and Sagan work out their differences is unconventional when compared to much of the action-oriented space opera on the market today.  Thus, readers looking for the softer side of science fiction will find a notable but not breathtaking example in The Last Colony.  Those looking for a blood-and-guts climax should look elsewhere.

In the future, Scalzi will more likely be remembered for his overall contributions to the genre rather than his talents as a writer of fiction. Competent, yes, his writing nevertheless lacks consistency, or anything approaching the beautifully descriptive or prosaic.  Wielding a style more in line with Asimov, the setting, characters, and events of The Last Colony are laid out in the simplest of terms.  Some emotion is attached, but the rather sterile characterization detracts from its sincerity.  That events move in cartoon fashion doesn’t help.  A certain fight scene midway through the book is particularly nauseating for the B-movie manner in which events play out, realism never so far away.  And the werewolves, well…

In the end, The Last Colony is just average sci-fi (as evidenced by the generic cover).  Scalzi does the big things right to fit into the genre, but in the details, things like plot and characterization, there is a lack of consistency.  Not a wordsmith, Scalzi’s style will not set the literary world abuzz, events related in base terms with some attempt at emotional input.  Conflict resolution is ambitious, however, and is reminiscent of Lois McMaster-Bujold’s Vorkosigan or Le Guin’s Hainish series.  Those who loved Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades will more than likely also enjoy The Last Colony, but will probably find it the weakest of the three.

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