Review of The Last Colony by John Scalzi
The Last Colony
by John Scalzi
It has been ages since I read The Ghost Brigade and over a year since I read The Human Division, which chronologically takes place after the events in The Last Colony but doesn’t spoil a lot of it. I guess it’s a testament to my terrible memory (and the reason why I write these reviews) that I remembered almost nothing about either books when I started reading this one. I couldn’t really recall who the Obin were, or who Zoë Boutin or her father Charles were, or why any of this mattered. Rather than worry or fret about these gaps, I just sat back and let John Scalzi’s writing persuade me.
If I wanted to be lazy, I could say that this is typical Scalzi. And for those who haven’t read Scalzi before—and if you haven’t, you should start with Old Man’s War—that means it is full of humour, particularly sarcasm and irony, of an irreverent variety, punctuated by lulls of intense, brooding seriousness. Scalzi writes a kind of postmodern space opera—it’s not quite as absurd as Monty Python, but you have a feeling that they would be comfortable selling their records in the lobby at intermission.
This book is clearly set up as the concluding volume of a trilogy. John Perry and Jane Sagan, the protagonists of the previous two books, unite to take on all-comers in this book. It has a tone of finality to it that is only bolstered by the author’s note at the end, in which Scalzi bids adieu to John and Jane even while leaving the door open to continuing on in this universe, as he eventually does. This structure works well: Scalzi allows himself a lot of freedom with The Last Colony, because he doesn’t have to worry about putting all the toys back in the box. Mindful of the arc of his characters, however, he still strives to provide emotional closure on John and Jane and what they have been through these past three books.
As with the previous books, the antagonists of the series are both the Colonial Union and alien species. Though the Colonial Union is human and therefore ostensibly “the good guys,” from the perspective of the colonists on Roanoke, “the good guys” are not so good. Although a dark part of this universe, the idea that humanity achieving space travel results in a second age of colonialism and imperialism is an intriguing one. The CU essentially treats the galaxy like a big land grab—and it’s not the only species doing this. There isn’t room for a United Federation of Planets; even the Conclave, which appears to be striving towards such a goal, is really more of a loose alliance of self-interest.
It’s clear, though, that we should be cheering for Roanoke, for John and Jane. They are fighting the Man in all his forms, and they are doing it with the power of rock and roll. They call in favours—or sometimes, as in Jane’s case, favours are granted without their consent—and constantly adapt to the latest news and threats. This is not a long book, but a lot happens; the pace is breathless at some points, and just when it seems like Roanoke has a chance, Scalzi drops a new bomb—sometimes literally.
The writing, as I said, is typical Scalzi. And as such, it also has the typical Scalzi flaw, which I talked at length about in my review of The Human Division: all his characters sound the same. John, Jane, Zoë, Savitri, Gau … they are all snarky bastards who enjoy witty repartée. Scalzi is a dialogue machine; most of this book is probably fun conversation. Alas, the one-note-ness of it is noticeable and occasionally grating.
Similarly, Scalzi can’t resist what I call “the smug reversal.” It goes like this: big bad aliens show up to take the planet. They magnanimously demand surrender. The human who responds doesn’t just say no; they smugly offer the attackers a chance to surrender instead. The first time this happens, it’s charming and fun. The second time … well, it falls flat, because now I’m left wondering if it’s going to keep happening. The whole point of a crowning moment of awesome is that it is the crowning moment. If your characters are prepared and have a trick up their sleeve all the time, suddenly your story loses all sense of tension, because there’s no need to worry about how they’ll get out of their latest predicament.
Those are really my only quibbles with The Last Colony. Otherwise, it’s another fun science-fiction story that blends aspects of military SF and colonial SF. It operates under the hypothesis that we get to the stars … and we basically keep behaving like the collective dicks we tend to behave like here on planet Earth. Which isn’t all that much a leap, I guess. But it makes for some good stories.