The Last Colony, John Scalzi

Tor, 2007, 320 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1697-4

At a time when most new writers in the SF&F field are writing fantasy rather than science-fiction, John Scalzi has quickly become a reliable value for top-quality SF. Since his first professionally-published novel in 2005, Scalzi has already produced a remarkable and distinctive body of work: The Last Colony is his fifth novel, and the third in the universe launched by the Hugo-nominated Old Man’s War. All of Scalzi’s novels so far have shown an entertaining blend of competent SF, crystal-clear writing, snappy dialogue and terrific pacing. Scalzi’s gone from hot new talent to reliable pro in a ridiculously short amount of time, and The Last Colony is another strong entry in the list of reasons why Scalzi belongs on your reading list.

Not simply content in repeating past successes, The Last Colony evolves the “Old Man’s War” universe rather than try to repeat a familiar formula. The first novel attempted a straight-up military SF formula. The second, The Ghost Brigades, meshed special forces heroics with musings on personal identity. This third entry more or less abandons the swords in favour of the ploughshares, as it follows past protagonists John Perry and Jane Sagan while they establish a new colony on Earth’s behalf.

This is a risky proposition. Readers of the series so far will recall how the galaxy is filled with competing alien races and how most of them wouldn’t mind seeing the humans disappear. It’s a tough Darwinian universe out there, and the humans are not among the most powerful hunters in the neighbourhood. Since colonization is so rigidly controlled by the galactic powers in charge, a new colony is almost an act of aggression. From the onset, it’s not too clear how official this effort is meant to be, or who’s telling the truth to the protagonists.

Scalzi’s tendency to pencil in details of his universe in previous books here comes handy, as he’s able to extend the reach of his world-building to include savvy diplomatic brinkmanship. Hints and allegations and ominous details finally pay off here, as potentially-silly details from previous volumes (such as the lack of communications between Earth and the colonies) are explained away in a reasonably coherent fashion. It eventually culminates in a joyously bridge-burning conclusion that will radically change the shape of the future books in the series. (As I revise this, Scalzi is reportedly at work on a fourth volume, Zoe’s Tale, due mid-2008.)

Fortunately, the prose and chapter-to-chapter pacing of the novel are up to the structural success of the novel. Scalzi’s most distinctive writing trademark is a compulsively readable style and The Last Colony is no exception. Despite the less militaristic focus of the story, Scalzi has no trouble pulling in his readers; the mystery surrounding the colony is enough to get the narrative started, and the procedural aspects of colonization are intriguingly described. Science Fiction has often played around with the concept of planetary colonization, but aside from The Legacy of Heorot, I can’t recall such a detailed nuts-and-bolts approach to the first few moments of such an event. It’s surprisingly engaging, and holds out interest just long enough for the third-act betrayals and explosions.

Scalzi’s ability to pose relatively complex conceptual and ethical issues in accessible language also remains intact. Like few other working SF genre writers, Scalzi is able to combine state-of-the-art speculation with a prose style that can reach much wider audiences than seasoned SF fans. And yet he’s able to do so without dumbing down anything, which is a harder trick than you’d expect.

Picker readers will probably ask a few questions about the rationale for 18th-century colonization equipment when “wireless communications” is the thing to avoid: the state of today’s mechanical design (especially for third-world environments) is such that better solutions could be used for 2Xth century colonies. But what’s a Science Fiction novel without at least one detail left to pick for argumentative fans?

What’s unarguable is that Scalzi is already an utterly dependable writer, one who keeps stretching the boundaries of his universe while delivering the same qualities that have attracted readers to his earlier work. Scalzi’s not just a hot new SF writer; he’s a model to follow if SF has any chance of surviving as a cohesive genre category in the twenty-first century.

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