BOOK REVIEW: “The Last Colony” by John Scalzi (2007)

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I’ve read five of John Scalzi’s novels now, and there hasn’t been a one of ’em I didn’t like. Granted the previous book in this series - “The Ghost Bigades,” reviewed here http://www.republibot.com/content/book-review-%E2%80%9C-ghost-brigades%E...
- was probably the weakest of the bunch, but he’s still batting above .750, and he hasn’t struck out yet. He’s earned my faith.

He didn’t blow it, either. My faith was well-placed. I was cautioned about this book. Evidently a lot of people feel it’s the weakest of the series, but I’m here to tell you: those people are wrong. In fact, this is my favorite of the bunch so far, and by a good margin.

This is the third novel in the “Old Man’s War” series. The eponymous first book told the first-person story of John Perry as he became embroiled in a Fightin’ Space Marine kinda’ war, and found true love with a woman named Jane Sagan. The second book told us what Jane Sagan was up to after the first book ended, and culminated with she and John adopting a daughter. It’s in third person, and Jane’s just not as compelling as John, so those are both strikes against it, though I reiterate: not at all a bad book. This new one tells us what happened after that.

Basically John and Jane have married and settled down on a planet called “Huckleberry” with their daughter Zoe, and have lived a quiet, boring, mundane existence in a rural farming village. They’re happy. One day the Army shows up on their doorstep and asks them to head up a new colony world, an experimental one: the first ever to take people from already-settled colony worlds, rather than directly from Earth. They agree, and from then on out are lied to, abused, manipulated, attacked, used, threatened, spared, attacked again, betrayed, and accused (Repeatedly) of treason by the very people who’ve sold them out. It’s a good romp which, alas, I can’t really tell you about for fear of blowing all the good bits.

Suffice to say that their new colony (Called “Roanoke”) is both more and less than what it seems. They went into it assuming it was some kind of a political bargaining chip among the human government, but it also ends up being a bargaining chip for nearly everyone else. It’s alternately funny and exciting and suitably exotic. Best of all: It’s once again in first-person narrative, as told by John Perry.

Perry is, as usual, an amiable wiseass. He’s smart and fast-witted, but by no means the fastest, nor does he pretend to be. He’s not trying to impress anyone, he’s just built that way. He finds himself in a situation far, far more dire than anyone anticipated, with enemies both inside and out and….again I find I can’t tell you much about it for fear of spoiling the plot. Dangit.

What I *can* say is that this book is better than “Old Man’s War” itself. Despite all the giddy Lilliputian-stomping fun of that novel, it *is* just a Fightin’ Space Marine story. Granted, it’s better than really any previous example of that subgenre, but it’s still something we’ve seen a lot. Conversely, “Colony” is more complex, more ambitious, and I think ultimately more rewarding. The first book was introducing us to the crappy-but-acceptable Status Quo. The second book was about an attempt to prevent the status quo from getting much, much worse. This time out we blow the doors of the status quo, and nothing is ever the same again. For good or for ill? We actually don’t know. The book doesn’t say. We’re left to believe it’s probably a good thing, but there are so many ways to screw the pooch.

That makes it sound like a cliffhanger ending. It’s not. There’s a very solid, very satisfying conclusion that resolves all the substantial threads from this book and the previous two. It concludes the John and Jane story in good fashion. A new world is being born, though we don’t really get to see the aftermath.

Style is brisk and breezy and entertaining, and the strange *sweetness* of the previous installments is still here, and odd and loveable gracious quality that offsets all the death and murder and mayhem. Well, it doesn’t really offset them, just places them in relief, I guess. Neat trick, though. He does it a good bit, and I never see it coming.

We’re introduced to some interesting new characters, most notably “Hickory” and “Dickory,” two aliens (Obin, actually) who live in John’s household, both of whom are a hoot. More remarkable to me, though, was Hiram Yoder, from a Mennonite colony world, who ends up saving Roanoke when they lose the use of nearly all electronics. He and his people teach the rest how to farm oldschool.

Knowing a few Mennonites in real life, I was impressed with the way they were depicted here. It’s rare to see a *real* religious group turn up in SF, and rarer still to see it depicted more-or-less accurately, and practically unheard of to have said group come out without being made to look like chumps. Scalzi again plays to his strengths, and gives them a quiet, not-at-all-preachy dignity. They’re good, simple people who live the life they believe God wants of them, and the world is a better place for it.

For me, personally, as a Christian, the most striking and awesome moment in the novel is when Hiram is brutally attacked, and just stands there, perfectly still, not fighting back, not running away, just taking it. The attackers grievously wound him, ripping up one whole side of his face, and knocking him down in great pain. He gets up, and knowing full well it’s the last thing he’s ever going to do, Hiram *literally* turns the other cheek. I tell you, I was on the edge of tears. It was a beautiful - and horrible - moment, made better by the author playing it without getting all cloying.

That said, there *were* a couple parts I really didn’t like. There “Werewolf” subplot is never resolved, it just ends abruptly. It was genuinely interesting, but leaving it without a conclusion makes it play like filler, even though it’s not. Furthermore, Zoe has an adventure that materially affects the outcome of the book, and yet we don’t get to see it. She’s just sent off on her own, then shows up again a chapter later, having done whatever she’s done. The conclusion of the book couldn’t take place without this, so it feels a bit of a cheat. It’s not like having the climax take place offscreen, or something stupid like that, but it does detract from it.

Apart from those two caveats, however, I love “The Lost Colony.” Definitely my favorite in the series thus far.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

I’m going to say ‘yes.’ Granted, there’s some light (And generally funny) lesbianism, but the depiction of a Christian group more than makes up for this; and even if one is irreligious I think all conservatives can get behind the idea that politicians are all-too-eager to sacrifice other’s lives for their own purposes. Resentment at being a cog in a machine who’s purpose you never even told about is definitely an element that will resonate for us.

Social Conservatives will, of course, take issue with many aspects of this book: Jane is effectively an artificial life form, there’s all kinds of genetic hoo-hah going on, evolution is taken as fact, there’s aliens, it’s set in the future, blah blah blah. This should be of no real concern: If a SoCon can handle “Star Wars,” there’s nothing in here that’ll cause undue panic. And for the rest of us - Non-SoCons - it’s not an issue at all, it’s just a really, really good book.

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