Browsing through the GoodReads list of books I read in 2013, I noticed that one of the authors featuring more prominently is John Scalzi: both his ongoing Old Man’s War series (now counting 5 volumes) and his stand-alone titles never failed to offer entertaining and thoughtful reads. On top of that there’s the person himself: as a follower of his blog I’ve found that he’s a witty, intelligent and considerate person who often takes the time to promote other writers’ work through the recurring series of “Big Idea” posts. Every time I’ve tried one of those books because the core theme interested me, I made a pleasant discovery (Mary Robinette Kowal being the most notable so far), so that now Mr. Scalzi is not just one of my favorite authors, he’s also a trusted, if indirect, advisor on reading materials.
While waiting for his next book to come out, I’ll try to put down some thoughts on what I enjoy about his storytelling.
The Old Man’s War series is set in a not-so-distant future in which the elderly are offered, on their 75th birthday, the chance of a new life – literally – serving in the Colonial Union’s military and assisting humanity’s expansion through the galaxy: all this in exchange for a second youth. How this is made possible is something best discovered through reading the books: suffice it to say that it adds an interesting twist to a trope explored in well-known books as Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Haldeman’s Forever War. The twist comes from the fact that these are mature (and probably wise) people, not adventure-seeking youths, which gives an added layer to their personalities and actions.
The storytelling is both light-hearted and thought-provoking, in a delightful balance that is one of Mr. Scalzi’s writing trademarks. The five books written up to today expand on that universe with a true space-opera scope that nonetheless never forgets the human side of living beings – even when they are aliens – giving the reader three-dimensional characters that feel true and believable.
This was one of the pleasant surprises I encountered with this series: the militaristic premise of the first book is slowly removed – as if peeling away a camouflage’s layers – to reveal unsavory truths and, more importantly, individual reactions to those truths that allowed me a deeper look into some characters’ personalities. A few of those glimpses moved me deeply more than once, and further raised my appreciation for Mr. Scalzi’s way of dealing with important issues in a deceptively light and offhand way.
What’s more, it looks as if the first book will be soon turned into a movie: I can hardly wait to see how it will translate on screen.
Redshirts is a stand-alone book, one that won the 2013 Hugo Award by the way.
It pokes some well-written fun at one of Star Trek‘s most recognized tropes: if you’re part of the security or technical crew (i.e. you’re wearing a red shirt) your life expectations don’t amount to much… The junior officers aboard the Universal Union’s starship Intrepid have come to a frightening realization: every time one of them goes on an away mission with the high-ranking officers, it’s certain that he or she will die in a horrible way. Most of those in the know do their utmost to avoid crossing the officers’ path and therefore being chosen for a team, but a group of newcomers understands there is a deeper reason behind what’s happening: I’m offering no spoilers here, except by saying that it’s a tongue-in-cheek joke aimed at serial tv. Once the truth has been discovered, the young crew members decide to take the matter into their hands to save their own lives and those of their shipmates.
This book has a Galaxy Quest flavor, yet it goes further on in the way it exposes the clichés of a long-standing tv show that sticks to its formulas and is afraid to “explore the strange new worlds” it’s supposed to. The author John Scalzi was creative consultant on the set of “Stargate Universe”, the short-lived spinoff of the SG franchise: it’s no mystery that many of the die-hard fans of SG1 did not embrace SGU because it was “too different”, “too dark”. Because – and here I’m expressing my own opinion – it left the beaten (safe?) path to try and find new ways to tell a story.
When some of the Redshirts characters face the person responsible for their destinies they ask him if he can’t find a better way of reaching his goals, one that does not require the death of throw-away people. Because a good story, more often than not, comes from the exploration of the unexpected, from a bold move in a new direction. That move might even require the death of a character, but that death must have meaning – this is what the young crewmembers are asking: thoughtfulness and respect, which is what every character in a story – any story – should receive.
Despite the humor peppering the pages, and the many hilarious in-jokes, there is a current of seriousness that runs beneath the surface because the story expands to explore more serious territory, as questions about what it means to be alive, and the meaning of life itself, assert their presence – especially in the three delightful and unexpected “codas” at the end of the book.
Fuzzy Nation is another stand-alone story, featuring a planetary prospector who discovers the proof of intelligent life on a planet whose resources are being drained by human greed.
The story itself concerns a classic trope: the big, bad corporation working to exploit a planet’s resources and trying to ignore the existence of a sentient indigenous race, so that the controlling authorities will not stop them. Of course the trope also requires a brave hero who will defy the big, bad corporation and win against all odds.
The way John Scalzi deals with this story makes all the difference, though: with his usual humorous and carefree style he manages to present the situation without falling into clichés, so that the tale remains consistently entertaining, engrossing and delightful.
For starters, the indigenous sentients – the Fuzzies – are not simply cute creatures: they are built, page after page, toward a surprise revelation that defies any reader expectation. Their antics, in the course of the novel, are thoroughly entertaining and I found myself laughing out loud in more than one occasion.
The hero himself, Jack Halloway, is hardly hero material at all: he’s more of a rogue watching out for his best interests, and even when he sides with the Fuzzies he does so with an eye to his advantages as well. Which makes him very human, and therefore even more likable, as are secondary characters Isabel (Halloway ex-girlfriend) and her new fiancée. These three often engage in delightful verbal sparring that is reminiscent of comedy movies from the ’50s and ’60s and livens up an already sparkling tale.
A special mention should go to Carl, Halloway’s dog, trained detonator of explosives and wonderful comic relief, both on his own and in the company of the Fuzzies. Even if you’re not a dog person, you will love Carl without reservations.
As I’ve come to expect by now, under the first layer of humorous, entertaining storytelling, Scalzi deals with more serious issues and manages to blend the two sides of the equation in a seamless way, at the same time keeping his readers interested and involved. The pace is quick, the characters believable and likable, the story engrossing: I could not have asked for better.
Agent to the Stars: John Scalzi’s very first novel, a work that was a sort of challenge to himself, to see if he could. Granted, it’s not on the same level as his other books, and yet the seeds of his narrative style are all there. It’s another light and funny story about aliens – nice ones – who want to meet Earth people but are aware that their appearance might work against them, so they employ a Hollywood agent to promote their image.
Delightful, entertaining and surprisingly deep as well.
The God Engines: this is a strange story indeed, quite unlike the usual pace and tone I’ve come to expect from the author. First the genre, that is a curious mix of science fantasy with a dash of “magic” (for want of a better word); then the mood, quite dark and unrelieved by the characteristic wit I’ve become accustomed to with Scalzi’s writing. And last but not least the abrupt and scary ending, that left me very unsettled.
As usual, the core themes – freedom, choices and what makes us human – raise many thoughtful questions, but still I wonder if he wrote this one while in a dark, hopeless mood…
On the other hand, a series of announcements on his blog indicates that more serious, not to mention terrifying themes, are forthcoming – at least judging from the microscopic peek Scalzi offered on his next book, Lock In, which should be available next August. You can read about it HERE. After reading the related novella Unlocked, I can hardly wait…