Wrapping up the Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi (books 4 – 6)

Finally, after threatening to read these books for oodles of year, I’ve done it! As of this past week, I’ve finished the Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi. I’m definitely feeling a sense of satisfaction over seeing this through — but what will I put on my reading resolution list for 2019, now that this perennial favorite has moved to the “already read” shelf?

After finishing the first three books in the six-book series, I wrote a wrap-up post (here) to share my thoughts from the halfway point. So now, I’ll dive back in and focus on books 4 – 6, which take the series in a decidedly different direction.

Book #4, Zoe’s Tale is THE EXACT SAME STORY as the one told in The Last Colony. The catch is, this time around we see events through the eyes of Zoe, adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan, and biological daughter of a man who came close to destroying all of humanity. (Spoiler alert: he failed.) Once again, we journey with the family to the new colony of Roanoke, where things go spectacularly badly for the human colonists.

Zoe is a fun point-of-view character, giving us the teen girl take on being dragged across the universe by her parents, being forced to leave her friends and technology behind, and engage in the dirty, difficult business of building a new home out of practically nothing.

Zoe is smart, and a smart-ass, and it’s exhilarating to see her come into her own and make a difference in intergalactic politics and intrigue. Plus, Zoe — by virtue of her birth father’s contributions — is a hero to an entire alien race, and seeing Zoe interact with her Obin bodyguards is worth the price of admission all on its own.

As a side note, throughout the series, Scalzi excels at creating multitudes of alien races and making them distinct and endlessly entertaining. Some are weird, some are scary, some are practically beyond description… and it all just adds to the fun of the Old Man’s War books.

You might think it would be dull to read about the same events in a second book, but trust me, it’s not. It’s kind of a blast to hear Zoe’s take on what happened, and to see how her version dovetails (or not) with her parents’ side of the story. Really, Zoe’s Tale is a great read — and I think best appreciated if read immediately following The Last Colony.

Zoe’s Tale is, in a way, an end of the main piece of the story, at least if you consider the series to be specifically about John Perry and his family. The next two books continue with events in the Old Man’s War universe, but have a very different format and focus.

Books #4 and 5, The Human Division and The End of All Things, are written (and were originally published as) a series of interconnected stories. John Perry’s actions at the end of the previous books pretty much blew up the uneasy coexistence of the Colonial Union (representing humanity) and the Conclave (an alliance of 400+ alien species). In these two books, we see what happens next.

Previously, Earth was kept isolated from the Colonial Union. Earth humans had the option of joining the CDF (Colonial Defense Forces) when they turned 75, but it was a one-way relationship. Earth was kept mostly in the dark about the goings-on out in space, and had no say in how humans interacted with the various other species they encountered.

John Perry broke through that barrier, and in The Human Division and The End of All Things, we see the fall-out. Earth is no longer willing to be merely a supplier of people and goods to the Colonial Union, and wants its own voice heard. In these two books, we meet diplomats — lots and lots of diplomats — from Earth, from the Colonial Union, and from the Conclave, each of whom represent their people’s interest, but carry layer upon layer of secret agendas as well.

Of course, these are John Scalzi books we’re talking about, so in addition to diplomatic negotiations, we have daring space rescues, lots of things blowing up, a brain in a box (yup!), wise-ass soldiers wielding mighty weapons while discussing ancient pop culture, descriptions of very interesting and sometimes scary alien beings, and more snark than might seem possible to fit into two paperback books.

As I said in my wrap-up of the first three books in the series:

Ever since discovering John Scalzi’s amazing books, I’ve know that I needed to make time for this series, but after talking about it for so long, it started feeling like a huge undertaking — and I’m not quite sure why. Now that I’ve dived in (and read three books in the space of a week), I can tell you that this series contains all the trademark Scalzi wit and smart-assery (is that a word? it should be a word) that we know and love from books like The Android’s Dream, Redshirts, and Lock In. I was afraid that Old Man’s War would be all hard sci-fi, serious and full of space battles, and I’m happy to say that that’s not the case. I mean, yes, there are space battles and the eradication of planets and species… but these books are funny, dammit, even while containing moments of deep emotion and moral dilemmas.

Now that I’ve reached the end of Old Man’s War, I can say that I’m 100% happy to have read the series! John Scalzi is consistently smart and funny in everything he writes, and I think it’s safe to say that I’m a fan for life. I haven’t started his newest series, The Interdependency (which consists of two books so far, The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire) — so I guess I do have something Scalzi for my goals list for 2019 after all.

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The details:

Zoe’s Tale – published 2008; 325 pages
The Human Division – published 2013; 431 pages
The End of All Things – published 2015; 380 pages

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A view from the halfway point of the Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi

The Old Man’s War series has occupied a place of honor on my TBR list for years now… I almost feel like I’m breaking with tradition by actually reading these books, rather than featuring them in yet another January post about my reading resolutions for the year.

Ever since discovering John Scalzi’s amazing books, I’ve know that I needed to make time for this series, but after talking about it for so long, it started feeling like a huge undertaking — and I’m not quite sure why. Now that I’ve dived in (and read three books in the space of a week), I can tell you that this series contains all the trademark Scalzi wit and smart-assery (is that a word? it should be a word) that we know and love from books like The Android’s Dream, Redshirts, and Lock In. I was afraid that Old Man’s War would be all hard sci-fi, serious and full of space battles, and I’m happy to say that that’s not the case. I mean, yes, there are space battles and the eradication of planets and species… but these books are funny, dammit, even while containing moments of deep emotion and moral dilemmas.

The series kicks off with Old Man’s War, which sets up quite a neat bit of world-building. From the opening lines, we know we’re in for a treat:

I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited by wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.

John Perry is the main character — a nice, decent man who misses his late wife, and has nothing much tying him to life on Earth. So, John enlists in the Colonial Defense Forces, a space-based military whose purpose is to protect human colonists across the depths of space, as they fight other species for possession of habitable planets. Why would a 75-year-old enlist? Because the CDF only accepts senior citizen recruits, enticing them with the prospect of technology that can make them young again. Sure, there are a few catches, like never being able to return to Earth again, and — oh yeah — going out and killing aliens in battle after battle, but the elderly recruits are all eager for a new chapter in their lives, so off they go.

What follows is an intriguing story of warfare, military training, the bonds between squad-mates, unimaginable danger from unimaginable aliens, and a rip-roaring good adventure. The morality is decidedly grey, and John Perry becomes more and more aware of the fallibility of the CDF powers-that-be. Danger, adrenaline, and even love come into play. It’s an awesome start to the series, although Old Man’s War can certainly stand on its own as a single-volume story, for those not looking to make a long-term investment in a series.

 

Book #2, The Ghost Brigades, shifts gears and perspectives quite a bit. While some characters cross over into this book, for the most part, The Ghost Brigades introduces a brand new cast of characters and a new set of dilemmas and conflicts.

The question of free will and consciousness is front and center. What does it mean to be a person? Are you still a person if your consciousness has been manufactured? Can a non-self-aware species become self-aware through technology? And if so, should they?

The adventure here feels much more personal, as it focuses on a few key people and their struggle to do the right thing, even when the right thing isn’t always obvious. The technology in this book expands on what we know from Old Man’s War, and is quite fascinating.

I did feel that the first third or so of the book was rather slow-moving, as it throws us into a new situation amidst new people and species, and spends a lot of time laying out the framework of the current conflict. I missed John Perry quite a bit (he’s absent from this story), although by the later sections of the story, I found myself just as invested in the new characters’ lives.

Things definitely pick up by the end — I couldn’t put this book down, and had to immediately move on to the next book to see what happened next…

Which brings us to The Last Colony, the third book in the series. As you might guess from the title (and as is clear from reading the author’s acknowledgements), The Last Colony was meant to be the end of the story. And a great end it is! Although apparently enough people loved these books for the author to continue the story for three more books, but I haven’t gotten there yet!

In The Last Colony, we’re reunited with John Perry, who’s once again at the center of a galactic battle for domination between the CDF and the non-human species who have allied together to put a limit to non-authorized planetary colonization. John is sent to head up a new colony on a new planet (which the CDF names Roanoke, not that that’s ominous or anything).  But the aliens aren’t particularly happy with this bold move by the humans, and they’re willing to do something about it.

I won’t give away too much about what actually takes place. It’s quite a good story, full of military maneuvering, intelligence gathering, high technology… and also domestic drama, snarky colonists, and plenty of awesome wordplay and quippy, snippy arguments. I was completely engrossed by this book… and now that I’ve finished, I’m trying to force myself to hit pause and read something different before diving into the 2nd half of the series.

Yes, there are three more books in the Old Man’s War series, and at this point, I can safely say that I’ll be reading them all… probably very, very soon.

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The details:

Old Man’s War – published 2005; 351 pages
The Ghost Brigades – published 2006; 347 pages
The Last Colony – published 2007; 320 pages

 

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Leviathan Wakes and The Expanse: Book, TV… amazing science fiction!

I just finished this massive book today, and I swear I’ve been reading it for EONS. (Okay, it’s been 10 days, but that seems like forever relative to my normal reading pace).

leviathan-wakesLeviathan Wakes is book #1 in the ongoing series The Expanse, by James S. A. Corey (which is actually a pen name for two co-authors, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). The paperback I’ve been lugging around with me is HUGE – 560 pages, about the size of a doorstop, and must weigh close to a ton. (It’s true! My arms are aching.)

The book series has also been adapted into a TV series on Syfy, season 2 of which just premiered this past week. No, I haven’t seen the beginning of season 2 yet. I wanted to finish book #1 first.

The world of The Expanse — TV and book — is set far enough into the future that human life has spread throughout the solar system. Earth and Mars are the inner planets, two independent political forces, and then there’s the Belt — the asteroid belt that’s become a source of mining and resources in service to the inner planets. Belters are an underclass, dependent on Earth and Mars, filled with a discontented people who are agitating for freedom. Earth and Mars have wealth and military might. The Belt is cramped, dirty, underfed, crime-ridden, and downtrodden. There’s a class war ready to explode, and it doesn’t take much to set it off.

Our hero is James Holden, who finds himself captain of a small rogue vessel after an untraceable attack on his home ship leaves him and his crew stranded in space. The anti-hero, of sorts, is Detective Miller, a Belter whose missing-persons case takes on intergalactic significance and brings him in league with Holden and his crew on board the Rocinante.

I really shouldn’t go into a whole lot more detail than that, although if you want a recap of season 1 of the TV show, there’s this brilliant video to check out:

I loved reading the book. I originally started it after watching the first season of the TV show, which has so many political factions and plots and military escapades that I thought the book might help me untangle it all. And it did. The book has a narrower scope in some ways than the TV production. Much of the politics, in particular all of the scenes set on Earth, are not in the book. Sadly, I missed one of the show’s stand-out characters, Avasarala, although I understand that she enters the book series world in the 2nd book.

THE EXPANSE -- Season:1 -- Pictured: Shohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala -- (Photo by: Amanda Demme/Syfy)

THE EXPANSE — Season:1 — Pictured: Shohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala — (Photo by: Amanda Demme/Syfy)

Another difference between book 1 and season 1 — season 1 ends at about the midpoint of the book’s plot… which makes me even more excited to dive into season 2, now that I know what’s still to come.

All in all, I’d say the creators of the show have done a remarkable job of capturing the universe of the books, combining elements of the first couple of books (or so I’ve been told) in order to achieve a visual and narrative trajectory that makes sense. The drama never lets up; we get some amazing space battles; there are truly stand-out personalities introduced, and the cast does a great job of bringing to life the complexities of the individuals who make up the whole.

I know I’m jumping around a lot here, because that’s just how my brain is processing all the data at the moment. I turned the final page of the book literally an hour ago, and my mind is whirring.

I suppose Leviathan Wakes would be considered “hard” science fiction. You know, space ships and technology and lasers and all that. But the human element elevates the whole into just really great storytelling, with exciting action and people who seem real enough to make us care.

the-expanse-crew

The crew of the Rocinante

I think anyone who enjoyed Battlestar Galactica will love The Expanse. Likewise, fans of the Killjoys series will find some common themes in the class struggles and solar system dynamics portrayed here.

As for the book, I am thrilled that I finally took the time to read Leviathan Wakes, despite feeling at times like I would never reach the end. From the midpoint onward, the momentum never stops, and I think I must have read the final third just within the past 24 hours. I swore that I would read just one for now… but now that I’ve finished Leviathan Wakes, I have to know what happens next!

Fortunately, it’ll probably take me a couple of weeks to get my hands on a copy of book 2, Caliban’s War… but once I do, I don’t think I’ll be able to keep myself from diving back into this incredible series.

For more info on season 2 of The Expanse, check out this great piece on the politics of the series.

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