Tag Archives: John Scalzi

Lock-In, John Scalzi

<em class="BookTitle">Lock-In</em>, John Scalzi

Tor, 2014, 336 pages, $28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0765375865

I had no intention to read Lock-In so quickly after its publication date.

I knew that I would read it eventually, of course.  In barely more than ten years, John Scalzi has become a best-selling SF author on the strength of a series of novels executing classic concepts with clear prose and smart-ass dialogue.  His fiction usually feature an easy-to-read mixture of light-hearted action that have made him difficult to avoid in any serious discussion of the current state-of-the-genre. (His strong Internet presence doesn’t hurt either.) His novels sell widely, earn decent reviews and regularly show up on the Hugo ballot.  I have a foot-long shelf full of hardcover Scalzi novels dating back to his debut Old Man’s War, and I knew that I would eventually get around to Lock-In.  Just not so soon, given my lack of time, overflowing to-read stacks and busy life in general.  Also: Lock In deals with locked-in syndrome, the kind of nightmare fuel that seems so far away from the lighthearted entertainment I’ve come to expect from Scalzi.

Then I woke up one morning with the worst acute torticollis of my life.  Reduced to lying down on the couch, any movement causing severe neck pain feeding back on itself in a spiral of spasms… my life quickly dwindled down to me, the couch and whatever portable device I was able to lift in front of my eyes.

Suddenly, Lock-In became far more relevant.  Thanks to the modern wonders of Wi-Fi and eBooks, I didn’t even have to get up to purchase it.  And so, for a while, I could forget the pain by reading about disabled people using remote bodies to live their life.

Lock In begins two decades after an epidemic (“Hayden’s syndrome”) that leaves millions of people “locked in” their own bodies, fully conscious but unable to move.  This having led to a massive research and development program, the future of Lock In features auxiliary bodies (“threeps”) in which locked-in victims are able to work and play.  Society is still adapting to this systematic separation of body and self, with further adjustments anticipated when the US government passes a bill ending the major financial incentives and government-sponsored programs that have led to such a technological revolution.

Against this larger backdrop, our protagonist Chris is a newly-minted police agent who quickly gets to experience a major case.  Except that Chris is a mini-celebrity by virtue of having been a visible early victim of Hayden’s syndrome and having a famous father.

When clues pile up that a simple murder case has wider and wider ramification, Lock In becomes an exemplary procedural SF thriller in which we get to explore a new future through the lens of a criminal case.  There are plenty of precedents to this kind of SF novel, from Asimov’s Caves of Steel to Kevin J. Anderson’ Hopscotch to Sean Williams’ The Resurected Man to (more relevantly) the comic book series The Surrogates –SF, identity issues and criminal cases have long enjoyed a beneficial relationship.  Not that this an easy kind of SF to write: Novels of this type have a tendency to mine the possibilities of a change until everything has been exposed by the end of the novel, leaving the impression of a very small universe.  Or they depend on implausible technological innovation and economic models, leaving the impression of a half-baked imaginary setting.

Fortunately, Lock In does it better than most: The rapid change in technology in barely two decades is explained away by Manhattan-Project-scale investments by the American government, the free-market forces shown at work in the novel are clearly patterned from the real world, and there’s a good degree of granularity and texture to the end-state, quite unlike some naive SF futures.  I still have a number of vexing questions about the adoption, or mandated lack thereof, of threeps for non-Hayden victims (including their use by military forces), but those tend to be second-order questions that aren’t immediately obvious from the story that Scalzi is telling.  Better yet is the feeling that not all of this future’s secrets have been revealed by the end of the book, keeping it credible at best, and at worst open to a lengthy series of sequels.

As for my early hesitations about the doom and gloom of reading about locked-in characters, I shouldn’t have worried: Scalzi is just as entertaining here, as the story picks up years after the mass trauma of the Hayden’s syndrome epidemic, and at a point when victims are no so locked-in.  This is an upbeat novel, often truly funny and at other times enlivened with spectacular action.  It’s a fast and easy read, and while I’m not overly happy about the linear way the story ends (or the way some early info-dumps are handled by dialogue rather than narration), it’s a book with good set-pieces and vigorous extrapolation throughout.

There’s also a bit of depth here that may not be obvious as readers race through the novel.  I was impressed, for instance, to see that Lock In does manage to address a number of issues relevant to disabled people (including the very notion that a disability is a disability), a group that is rarely represented in mainstream SF.  Other questions of identity abound, including something that I completely missed during my read-through: the gender identity of the narrator is never revealed, and in fact seems a bit irrelevant.  (Being named Chris and knowing that Scalzi is male, I naturally defaulted to “male” in identifying the narrator, a viewpoint that seemed bolstered by a few later anecdotes that code themselves as male to me.  But there is no textual evidence in the text to indicate for sure that Chris is male.)  Why I’m not usually interested by such games of narrative identity (see, for instance, my non-impressed reaction to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice), the beauty of Lock In is that you can, like me, read through the book and never even notice that it’s there.  Well done.

My torticollis ultimately lasted a bit longer than my experience with Lock-In (sleep carefully, readers!), but during that time it was hard to avoid noticing the novel making an appearance on the New York Times best-seller list.  I’m sure that a Hugo nomination will follow: Scalzi is one of the top SF writers of the moment and books such as Lock In, more ambitious than many of his previous novels, will keep him actively engaged in the discussion that is genre fiction.  If my neck was in any shape to do so, I’d nod appreciatively.

Redshirts, John Scalzi

<em class="BookTitle">Redshirts</em>, John Scalzi

Tor, 2012, 320 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-765-31699-8

Geez: As recently as three years ago, I used to read (nearly) all Hugo-nominated novels as a matter of course –sometimes even before they were nominated. Now it takes a year before I get around to reading the one Hugo-winning novel. Life changes. Stuff happens. I’m busy. Insert your favorite excuse here.

It’s not even as if I had any particular reluctance to pick up John Scalzi’s Redshirts: I’ve been reading Scalzi since the original hardcover of Old Man’s War, have the rest of his novels on my shelves and find him to be a highly enjoyable entertainer. His work tends to be slighter than I’d prefer, and not every one of his novel works (I’ll argue that Zoe’s Tale, as charming and readable it can be, is almost useless from a narrative standpoint when put alongside The Last Colony.) but he is, book-for-book, one of the most reliable professionals in the business today.

But I’ve been taking a break from reading in general for the past two years, and it’s only now that I’ve got the time for Redshirts. I will admit that my enthusiasm for the title was tempered somewhat by the plot summary, concerned as it is with the fate of expendable people in a suspiciously Star Trek-like future. The titular “Redshirts” expression is an old Star Trek fandom joke (as in “if you’re wearing a red shirt, you’re in trouble!” –because you will die in the first act as a way to heighten suspense) and I wasn’t too sure what Scalzi would be able to bring to the concept.

For a while, it looks as if he doesn’t do much more than bring his usual witty dialogue and light touch to the table. As five new crewmembers board the Starship Intrepid, the in-jokes fly thick and low: everyone aboard is terrified to volunteer for away missions, lousy science seems to be the order of the day, and none of our witty five new crewmembers have any clue as to what’s happening. It’s not unpleasant to read, but it’s not much above dozens of years of trek in-jokes and banter. In fact, at that point, Redshirts seems to be a sub-standard comic Trek take-off, unwilling to dig deeper in the inanity of Trek’s premise and markedly less amusing than what one would expect from a comic romp. Andrew Dahl and the Methods of Rationality this isn’t.

But wait… because there’s some serious weirdness ahead. It quickly becomes clear that something very strange in happening aboard the Intrepid whenever events start taking on dramatic qualities. People act differently, not quite understanding why they do. Logic flies off the window, taking with it what a professional team should know. Ominous warnings are given about The Narrative. People die, following a logic that our heroes desperately try to understand before they, too, suffer the same fate.

Before long, things turn severely meta and Redshirts finally becomes more interesting than the simple Trek commentary promised on the back-cover. Without spoiling anything explicitly, let’s just say that Scalzi revisits territory previously explored in Agent to the Stars, and questions of personal identity similar to The Ghost Brigades. The novel ends with philosophical questions about our relationship to fiction. Redshirts concludes quickly, leaving time for three codas that prove unexpectedly moving as consequences to the novel’s events are explored, further developing our understanding of the wreckage left behind by protagonist heroics. Redshirts gets more and more interesting throughout, eventually showing (among other things) why it’s not a bad idea for someone with a degree in philosophy to be writing science-fiction.

There are highs and lows along the way. Much of the writing is Scalzi’s usual mixture of snark and wittiness, which works well in blog posts but occasionally feels misplaced on the page. Many of the lead characters can’t easily be distinguished (this is played for laughs once, but it more often smacks of Scalzi-writes-one-kind-of-character-really-well. There are significant issues with willing disbelief in the middle third of the novel (including mentioning Star Trek by name), that are eventually papered over by the rest of the story. But, to its credit, Redshirts is rarely less than compelling to read: it’s got a lot of that elusive “reading fun” that so many other novels fail to achieve. Don’t be surprised to finish it within days even if you are a slow or busy reader.

(I’m not quite as convinced it should have been a Hugo-award-winning novel, but I’ll leave that rant for another time.)

Your Hate Mail Will be Graded, John Scalzi

<em class="BookTitle">Your Hate Mail Will be Graded</em>, John Scalzi

Tor, 2010 reprint of 2008 original, 368 pages, C$17.99 pb, ISBN 978-0-7653-2711-6

Books often have complicated publication histories, and so it is that the content of Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 first existed as blog posts, then as a limited edition book from Subterranean Press before being republished by Tor for the mass market.  It also won a Hugo between the first and second edition of the book: The Tor edition is the first book I’ve seen with the new “Hugo Award” logo printed on the back.

Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is an attempt to present the best posts of the first decade of John Scalzi’s Whatever blog in book form.  Scalzi is now often best-known as a science-fiction writer, but his blog usually presents a mixture of pop-culture, politics, writing advice, autobiography, takes on the controversies-du-jour and, generally speaking, anything else that catches his interest.  Thanks to a background that includes a degree in philosophy, corporate writing assignments, science-fiction novels and a newspaper column, Scalzi writes in a way that is entertaining no matter the subject.  Whatever presents an addictive blend of clear prose, amusing writing, serious arguments, original reporting and a keen understanding of what keeps a readership coming back for more.

Since I’ve been reading Whatever for about five years, much of the book feels familiar: A number of Scalzi’s best-known pieces, such as the “Being Poor” op-ed [P.297], “10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing” [P.213] or the trip report from the Creation Museum [P.135] are reprinted here, alongside pieces I had enjoyed at the time but re-discovered while reading the book, such as “I Hate Your Politics” [P.181], “The Lie of Star Wars as entertainment” [P.119] and “Unasked-For Advice to New Writers About Money” [P.253]  Finally, there’s the first half-decade of Whatever that I never got to read in real-time, the best bits of whom are reprinted here, including a “Best (…) of the Millennium” series dating from 1999.

John Scalzi having a lot of experience as a reviewer, it’s no surprise to find him providing hints in his introduction by pointing out the ways in which Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded can be enjoyed: As an early collection of the “blog post” form, as a cultural capsule of the eventful 1998-2008 decade or as pieces of purely entertaining writing.  He’s right on all count, of course: Reading this book is like digging into a bowl of popcorn… it’s difficult to stop before the end.

But as I try to flip back through the book to find specific posts and titles, I am also reminded of the most annoying “feature” of the book: A deliberate lack of organization or, as the back cover boasts, “a decade of Whatever, presented in delightfully random form, just as it should be.”  The pieces aren’t arranged chronologically, thematically or by word count.  There are no sub-headers at the top of the pages, nor anything looking like a table of content or an index.  Want to find that piece that discussed that thing you liked so much?  Start flipping through the book, because there’s no other way to find what you want.  A note at the beginning of the book further states that this is to replicate the Whatever reading experience, but that’s pushing adherence to the blog form a bit too far: Web readers have access to chronological archives and a search engine.  Book readers are, well, stuck with a shapeless mess.  Might as well go to Google and start searching site:scalzi.com because as a reference, Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is actively hostile to any kind of organization.

This nit-picky bibliographical nit aside, Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is about as good as the “Collection of Blog Posts” form ever gets.  Scalzi’s writing is compelling even outside the context of a web browser, and the look back at some of his earlier posts show little difference from the latter, more widely-read pieces in terms of sheer reading appeal.  It may even earn Scalzi a few new fans while his current ones wait for his next novel.

Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi

<em class="BookTitle">Zoe’s Tale</em>, John Scalzi

Tor, 2008, 335 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1698-1

Some of the most difficult moments in a reviewer’s life come when a highly-anticipated work fails to meet certain expectations, or betrays an author’s otherwise sterling reputation. As much as I normally like Scalzi’s fiction, and as much as I was primed to like Zoe’s Tale, it ended up surprising and disappointing me: For the first time while reading a Scalzi novel, I felt impatient.

Fans of Scalzi’s work so far will immediately recognize the plot of the novel: As its title suggests, Zoe’s Tale describes the events of Scalzi’s previous The Last Colony from the perspective of John Perry’s teenage daughter Zoe. Being a sixteen-year-old girl, Zoe’s perspective on the story is different, but not too different. Exception made of a small section at the end of the book, the story beats are roughly the same –-although the last few pages of Roanoke colony’s story remains in The Last Colony.

For readers who read primarily for plot, this makes Zoe’s Tale a surprisingly unsettling experience. While it fills in the beats of Zoe’s story and explains a few passing references in its source book, Zoe’s Tale often feels like a rehash of known material; another trip around the same block in a slightly different vehicle. The Old Man’s War universe isn’t significantly deepened by this entry, nor are we getting a perspective that contradicts John Perry’s. At most, an enigmatic reference is cleared up, and events that are more important to Zoe than her father are told in more detail. (Unlike other parallax novels such as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow, there’s also little playfulness with what readers are supposed to know from having read the previous book.) Readers may want, for extra credit, to compare a few scenes as told in both books to see the different perspectives of the two characters.

Fortunately, there is something else than a simple plot re-hash going on here: Zoe’s Tale is perhaps best appreciated as an attempt to re-tell The Last Colony in a YA-friendly female teenager’s voice. As a style exercise, if you prefer. As such, it’s somewhat more successful: Scalzi’s attempt to write like a 16-year-old girl cleanly evokes the confusion, thrills, quirks and friendship bonds of that demographic.

This being said, it isn’t much of a stretch for Scalzi to map his own usual sarcastic smart-ass prose style onto another sarcastic smart-ass character, even if she happens to be a 16-year-old girl on a brand-new colony world. It just so happens that her friends are, by and large, a generally sarcastic smart-ass group, and that the people she most values around her are also sarcastic smart-asses. (If nothing else, Roanoke Colony’s got a bright future in exporting comedians.) Scalzi’s has previously acknowledged his Heinleinian influences, but Zoe also echoes some of Heinlein’s teenage protagonists in that she’s the prototypical Competent Teenager; rarely wrong and of reliable judgment. It’s a typical SF character type, but the pattern can be amusing once it becomes obvious.

Plot and characterization, however, haven’t been Scalzi’s strengths as much as his easy prose style and his humor, and in that sense Zoe’s Tale is another success for him. It’s a fast and enjoyable read that won’t disappoint his regular readers who don’t mind some déjà vu. For the others, however, Zoe’s Tale is perhaps Scalzi’s most disappointing novel so far, and one that sends the Old Man’s War universe in diminishing-returns territory. More demanding readers may want to wait until the paperback and lower their expectations accordingly.

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.

The Android’s Dream, John Scalzi

Tor, 2006, 396 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30941-6

Things can change quickly.

Two years ago, John Scalzi was “just” a popular blogger to most of the SF community, one whose first novel, Old Man’s War, was about to be published by Tor. His blog spoke for itself, but he was still unproven in matters of fiction: While Agent to the Stars (his first “practise novel”) was freely available on his web site, SF fans and pundits waited for the real thing.

These days, Scalzi is also known as “best-selling, Campbell Award-winning John Scalzi”. Thanks to the runaway success of Old Man’s War and its follow-up The Ghost Brigades, Scalzi quickly found a place as a bright new writer. Agent to the Stars was re-issued as a hardcover. Fans accumulated from within and outside the genre readership. With the release of The Android’s Dream, Scalzi cements his reputation as a reliable source of solid SF entertainment. A comic thriller in the avowed tradition of Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard, Scalzi’s latest novel is pure SF delight from beginning to end.

Trying to explain the intricate details of the plot in a few words would serve no one, but you can rest assured that within a few chapters, all of the required thriller elements are in place: a competent man with a dangerous history, a damsel-in-distress with more than a few skills, an unusual MacGuffin, shadowy organizations with immense resources at their disposal, and enough wheels-within-wheels to ensure copious crossfire. Add to that some SF elements to juice up the action sequences, setting and stakes, and you’ve got all that’s required for a terrific piece of entertainment.

But SF thrillers are a dime a dozen on the shelves. Some argue that they’re one of the dominant forms of the genre. What sets The Android’s Dream apart from the rest?

Part of it is the humour. Despite the high stakes, character deaths and implacable opponents, The Android’s Dream keeps things as light and breezy as they need to be. The tone is set by the book’s now-infamous first paragraph (“Dirk Moeller didn’t know if he could fart his way into a major diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out.”) and if the end result isn’t quite so ridiculous, the novel lives up to this promising start.

The quality of the writing is also tied to the novel’s easygoing tone. Scalzi has a good pen for amusing banter (especially between his romantic leads) and his prose manages the impressive feat of balancing both the humour and the suspense that are essential to this type of novel. A technique that he uses to good effect is to introduce a character and then unwrap his past history from the deadpan perspective of an omniscient narrator: It works better than you’d think at generating both the laughs and the background exposition.

For some reason (maybe the high-density dialogue), I kept picturing the book as a big-budget action film: Sequences like the “Arlington Mall” chapters have the feel of a purely cinematographic action sequence, down to the obvious set-up and the wisecracks. Even the omniscient unwrapping of characters kept reminding me of a certain post-RUN LOLA RUN school of collage film-making. (I also flashed back on THE FIFTH ELEMENT during the cruise starship sequence, but that’s just me: in terms of allusions, the title of the book itself is a better subject of contemplation.)

As a piece in Scalzi’s career so far, The Android’s Dream fits comfortably next to Agent to the Stars and his two other military-SF novels: The pacing is similar, the humour is in the same vein and the accessibility of Scalzi’s fiction carries through even as Scalzi refines his prose style. You could give The Android’s Dream to a non-SF reader and they wouldn’t have any trouble parsing the content: While this may not give jaded SF readers their jolt of rarefied sense-of-wonder, it will work well on a wide variety of readers. The “Scalzi brand” is taking shape: solid Science Fiction entertainment that clearly works well within the protocols of the genre, while remaining accessible to readers who may not have dedicated the past decades of their live reading SF. Not only does the genre need new writers like John Scalzi, it needs more of them.

Agent to the Stars, John Scalzi

Tor, 2002 (2008 revision), 368 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7653-1771-0

(Also available online at http://www.scalzi.com/agent/ )

Trunk novels. Just about every writer in the business has at least one: those early efforts that weren’t good enough to warrant publication and so await patiently, in the trunk (so to speak) to be reworked or abandoned entirely. Some writers eventually manage to revise and publish them while others seem happy to let them age away unseen. I know of one red-hot hard-SF writer who reportedly has ten of them, which is the kind of stuff that makes me feel better when I read his stuff and wonder how his “first” book out of the gate was so unbelievably good.

But in these wild and woolly Internet times where information actively schemes to be free, more and more writers are turning to a third alternative: Releasing the novel on the Internet as a free sample of what they can do and a piece of must-read history for their fans. Campbell Award-winning John Scalzi is now officially one of SF’s most sensational new writer, but the runaway success of Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades masks the fact that those weren’t his first two novels: Another one, Agent to the Stars, was written in the late nineties and and released as a free download on his wildly popular web site in 1999, where it attracted attention and some generously donated money.

But then Scalzi sold other novels, which did quite well on the marketplace. This, in turn, raised Agent to the Stars‘ profile high enough that the fine folks at Subterranean Press crunched some numbers and figured they could make a profit re-publishing the novel as a special limited edition. There are rarely second chances for books, but there are also exceptions: this is one of them.

Those of you worried about quality can rest easy: While Agent to the Stars doesn’t quite make it as a first-rate SF novel, it’s good enough by itself, and quite reasonably good for what is, after all, a trunk novel. Scalzi is such a professional that it’s hard to imagine him releasing anything that wasn’t good enough for public consumption.

It’s also one of those relatively rare creatures: A light-hearted Science Fiction novel. The hook is simple: Successful Hollywood agent Thomas Stein is a bright young darling at his agency, and he’s lucky enough to have at least one rising superstar under his wing. Things are looking up for him, until he’s called into his boss’ office for a special assignment: Find a way to “sell” a race of slimy smelly aliens to the human public. The agent job of a lifetime… if Tom can handle it. Fortunately, the aliens are friendly (pretty funny, actually) and Tom seems reasonably confident that he can crack the problem. But this is Hollywood, and things have a way of not going quite right.

Before long, tragedy occurs and Agent to the Stars heads to grounds that will feel familiar to seasoned Scalzi readers: Ethical dilemmas arise, and with them the ideal excuse to use SF as a tool to explore a few big “What If?”s. The warm and gooey aliens end up teaching two or three things to Tom about what it means to be human, bringing the novel to a conclusion that will satisfy everyone.

On a writing level, Agents to the Stars is deceptively simple: The prose is immediately accessible, and Scalzi knows how to put his characters in genuinely amusing situations. The balance between comedy and drama is tricky to get right and if the tonal shifts can rough at times, the skill of the conclusion more compensates for it. Scalzi has a lot of experience writing about movies and he uses that knowledge to paint a convincing portrait of the daily life of a Hollywood agent: Movie buffs won’t be the only ones who benefit from Agent to the Stars, but the novel will pack a special fun for them.

This being said, it remains a trunk novel, even if it’s exceptionally pleasant to read. It’s a bit linear and fluffy (though less so than you can imagine, thanks to the dramatic turn taken in the second half of the book), with a few dramatic shortcuts that make sense in a comedy but wouldn’t pass inspection in a more rigorous tone. The speculative elements are few, though well-developed and reasonably consistent.

But as a Scalzi fan, I’m just thankful that he’s been generous enough to allow random readers to have a look at his first effort. In some ways, I suspect that Agents to the Stars reflects Scalzi-the-author a bit better than his first “official” novel Old Man’s War: it’s funnier, looser, a bit more explicit in its ethical concerns and not as worried about mass-market appeal. As time passes, I think that Agents to the Stars will find its place not just as an unusually good “free novel on the web”, but as an essential piece in the Scalzi bibliography, the one piece that announces a strong career.

The Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi

Tor, 2006, 317 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31502-5

Writer/blogger John Scalzi made quite a splash in early 2005 with the release of Old Man’s War, a straight-up military Science Fiction novel that went on to very successful sales and favourable critical acclaim. Barely a year later, the sequel The Ghost Brigades is already available on bookstore shelves, raising all sorts of questions about Scalzi’s superhuman writing skills.

Not the least of which is “how does he manage to keep it up?” Old Man’s War wasn’t cutting-edge SF, but it could boast of compulsively readable prose and a roaring rhythm. At a time where unputdownable is as overused as it’s ungrammatical, Scalzi is the real deal: someone who can deliver a fast, fun SF story that remains accessible and doesn’t take you for an idiot. With Old Man’s War, he showed that he could do it once; with The Ghost Brigades, he proves that he can do it again.

Set in the same universe as Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades takes a step deeper into the inner workings of the Colonial Defence Forces first introduced in the earlier book. A minor character gets a more substantial supporting part here, though the hero is entirely new in more ways than one: Jared Dirac is a force-grown clone, originally meant for a top-secret imprinting experiment, but then recycled in the CDF’s special forces . Meant to be someone else, he has to confront who he’s supposed to become.

While The Ghost Brigades can’t duplicate the delicious feeling of discovery that so characterized Old Man’s War (this time, we’re familiar with the universe and with Scalzi himself), it’s easily just as good in terms of narrative efficiency: Jared’s training is less military than social, and his subsequent combat adventures are enhanced by a different personal dimension than Old Man’s War‘s John Perry. Scalzi is skilled in quickly raising a number of issues related to his chosen theme of identity and consciousness: while some of them will feel old-hat to a number of veteran SF readers, they’re discussed so briefly that they don’t linger too long..

As is the case with nearly all of Scalzi’s writing to date (and here I’m lumping together his fiction alongside things like his blog and The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies), the prose is crystal-clear. Moments of humour are well-handled, along with a number of sly reversals —such as a good part of the first chapter. But don’t think that The Ghost Brigade is one big funny romp: One of the most satisfying aspects of the book is how it explores the darker side of the series’ universe, with its unforgiving realities (ie; let’s kill them before they kill us) and complicated politics. Doubts are raised as to the righteousness of the CDF (and never quite dismissed), simultaneously taking in account some of my problems with Old Man’s War and showing the way toward a third volume in the series.

Scalzi shows a good grasp of the genre’s gadgets and conventions, acknowledging a number of authors here and there while manipulating techno-military jargon with fluid ease. It’s important to note that Scalzi, while immensely respectful of the military, doesn’t share the rigid right-wing politics of many military SF writers: As a result, his fiction is filled with nuances and caveats that simply make it more interesting to read. Alternatives are discussed and characters genuinely anguish over their actions. As a result, even liberals come to understand when it’s time to lock up any doubts and fire at full automatic.

As good as it is, The Ghost Brigades comes with a few caveats: It is a bit on the thin side and may be more appropriate as a paperback than a full-price hardcover. As entertaining as it is, it also raises an interesting question: When will Scalzi try his hand at a more ambitious project? As coldbloodedly professional as he appears to be in his approach to his career, I doubt that he will suddenly drop everything else to produce an insanely ambitious 500-page work of art ready to challenge, say, Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. But I wonder. I wonder because I’ve seen what he’s capable of doing (twice) and I can’t wait to see him tackle bigger and better things.

The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies, John Scalzi

Rough Guide, 2005, 325 pages, C$21.99 tpb, ISBN 1-84353-520-3

There has been a number of books about science-fiction films over the years, but few of them are as enjoyable as John Scalzi’s The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies. Beyond a simple overview of the field, Scalzi’s guide manages to find a clever balance between fact, personal quirks and consensus opinion. The result is a reference book that will inform neophytes and please long-time fans; no mean feat considering the nature of the field.

The good people at Rough Guide have done their homework: The book covers an outline of the field’s history, a canon of essential films, a series of “icons” (notable people, characters, places) and a bunch of related information. In addition to the fifty essential film of the canon, The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies briefly reviews 250 other SF films: It’s hard to think of another movie that ought to have been included. (Well, maybe not that hard: EQUILIBRIUM should have been mentioned. But seriously, how would you manage to fit an entire genre in no more than 325 pages?)

The meat of the book are, of course, the fifty films selected as canon. Most of the expected classics are here (STAR WARS, 2001, BLADE RUNNER, THE MATRIX, TERMINATOR 2, etc), alongside some more daring choices (BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, ALPHAVILLE, 28 DAYS LATER). Some choices will generate some controversy (THE INCREDIBLES?) but the list is, overall, quite solid for a historical overview. If the list, read cold, can seem bizarre, it’s hard to disagree after reading the full write-up of those films: Scalzi does a fine job at explaining why those particular films were selected and why influence often trumps quality or success.

But the canon isn’t the only worthwhile part of the book. More than half of this Rough Guide is spent discussing the historical origins of SF (including a short but good history of the written field), the icons of the genre (including actors, directors, characters and landmarks), an overview of SF cinema around the world and a quick look at television SF. All put together, it does give a good overview of the field for whoever would want to know more.

But the Rough Guide will also interest core genre geeks: Scalzi is a knowledgeable cinephile (his credentials include a decade-long stint as a movie critic) and a confirmed member of the SF community: He can discuss the field like the best of them, and so for genre geeks the book is like sitting down with a fellow fan who’s seen pretty much everything. What’s also noteworthy is that while Scalzi isn’t afraid to hold some strong opinions, most of his outlook on the genre will match the collective opinion of well-read fans. (Dissing STAR WARS is a hard sell at the office, but it’s almost de rigueur at a Science Fiction convention ) Unlike, say, C.J. Henderson’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, there is no significant re-evaluation of the field in here: knowledgeable fans will, despite a few hasty generalizations due to lack of space, feel comfortable in handing over this guide to neophytes.

Alas, The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies was roughly shoved through production, and the unacceptable number of small silly mistakes shows how quickly the book was produced. Beyond the simple typos (“Fishbourne”, etc), there are a number of other slight errors (Seaquest DSV was retitled and lasted a second season; AMERICA’S SWEETHEART was released in 2001) that mar the otherwise reasonably exact content of the book. Hopefully all will be corrected in the second edition.

Any discussion of Scalzi’s work would be incomplete without acknowledging the accessibility of his prose. Scalzi’s writing has been forged by years of journalism and blogging: His prose is crisp, crystal-clear and immediately enjoyable. Grab the book in bookstores, start reading a page at random and see how long it takes you to stop.

All in all, Scalzi’s Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies does what it set out to do. The material can be thin, but the selection is appropriate, the sidebars are satisfying and it’s hard to find significant fault in the book’s overall stance toward SF cinema. Given how it’s a quarter of Rough Guide’s slate of genre cinema guides, I’m awfully tempted to rush out and get the three other books.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

Tor, 2005, 316 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30940-8

It doesn’t take a long time to become a John Scalzi fan. One look at his on-line blog, “Whatever”, is usually enough to put him on your list of daily diversions. A true writing professional, Scalzi has perfected his on-line voice for maximum impact: It’s clear, strong and immensely entertaining. It’s not much of a surprise, then, to find out that his “first” novel be such a readable piece of work. (“First” novel in a big-publisher sense; a truer first novel, Agent to the Stars, is available on-line and will soon be published by speciality publisher Subterranean Press)

Old Man’s War is self-consciously a derivation on the kind of military SF best exemplified by Heinlein’s Starship Troopers: a novel whose first half is spent seeing our protagonist through training, and the second in actual combat. The main tweak of this well-worn story, in this case, is that the protagonist of the tale is a 75-year old man. John Perry is widowed, bored and enlisted: what sweetens the pot for him is that the Colonial Marines are ready to rejuvenate anyone willing to sign up for a tour of duty.

I expected to enjoy Old Man’s War, but I’m still surprised at how quickly and how effectively Scalzi can hook his readers. The prose style is a model of easy reading, and Scalzi’s got a practised eye for the small details, the mini-scenes, the rich dialogue, the background material required to make readers race from one chapter to the next. His protagonist undergoes his “going of age” adventure with believable reactions given his life experiences. John Perry is a tough guy, but not without his soft side: he misses the simple pleasures of matrimony, is properly grateful for what his old body has done for him and can’t let go whenever he think he has seen something important. This is a bookmark-optional book: Don’t be surprised if you end up reading it in a single sitting.

The military-SF aspect of the story is also handled with plenty of skill. The problem with a lot of industry-standard military SF is that it often seems as if it’s written by soldiers for soldiers. Even well-meaning civilians can have trouble understanding the tactics, the jargon and the common assumptions. Scalzi is not a veteran, even comes from the left side of the political spectrum, but he understand how to treat the subject respectfully. This detachment has a lot to do with the perfect accessibility of his novel for everyone: Even readers unfamiliar with hard-core MilSF will be able to read Old Man’s War without too much trouble. (Naturally, sub-genre devotees will find themselves at home. Through I wonder if the Thaddeus Bender sequence is a bit of red meat thrown to that particular segment of the audience.)

This being said, the plotting isn’t up to the polish of the prose. Scalzi has an annoying penchant for plotting-by-coincidence, and so Perry benefits from a few unbelievably convenient chance encounters: First with his biggest off-planet fan (netting him some initial advancement), then (twice) with someone familiar to him. Once may not have been so bad, but more than that is a bit too much.

I also have issues with some of the background coherency of his universe: Some arbitrary restrictions are made necessary by the plot, (no higher-tech on Earth; permanent exile of the Marines) but the rigid enforcement of those rules are inconsistent with how things work in the real world. Scalzi also struggles with his high-tech toys: the level of technology used by the Colonial Marine isn’t evenly distributed, and even his acknowledgement of those inconsistencies (eg; the discussion of why the “Ghost Brigades” don’t make up the bulk of the Marines Corps) seems a bit evasive. Which is a shame, because Scalzi understands the tech and slings the jargon better than many of his peers: His use of SF tropes is consistent with his goal of updating Starship Troopers to today’s tech standards.

But even with the awful coincidences, even with the iffy parameters of his universe, Old Man’s War remains a delight from beginning to end. I’m not just saying that because it’s a near-certainty that John Scalzi will eventually read this review (sorry for those last two paragraphs, Mr. Scalzi), but because I have rarely seen such a compulsively-readable novel. In terms of pure reading fun, it brings to mind some of the slickest Frederik Pohl novels, or -dare I say it- Heinlein’s Starship Troopers itself. A number of so-called fine writers could take note of the technique. Scalzi is a professional, and when it comes to my entertainment dollars, I’ll bet on the professional over the artist all the time.