John Scalzi takes us for the sixth time for a tour of his Old Man’s War universe, and like the preceding book in this series, The Human Division, he does it in serialized form. This time, however, instead of a number of interconnected short stories he gives us “only” four longer novellas and I must say that they worked far better, for me, than the previous experiment. Even though the short stories of volume 5 brought us, step by step, to the climax and cliffhanger of the book, one that made me quite expectant for the future developments of the story, still they felt more like brief, loosely connected sketches, not unlike the rapid-sequence images of a music video, while the four novellas from The End of All Things possess a more organic flavor, each one of them flowing into the next one and building the broader picture into focus in concentring circles. From my point of view it was therefore a far more satisfying read.
1. The Life of the Mind
The Human Division ended right after the brutal attack on Earth Station, perpetrated by stolen ships piloted by disembodied brains, and the political situation was quite tense, with many Earth governments pointing their finger at the Colonial Union. It was apparent that someone was moving behind the scenes to upset the situation, and in the first novella of The End of all Things we learn about “Equilibrium” a group of aliens, linked to human collaborators, whose goal is to subvert both the Colonial Union and the alien Conclave in an effort to establish a new ruling power, playing both sides against the middle.
The narrating voice of this first story is that of Rafe Daquin or, as he defines himself, a brain in a box: he’s one of the pilots kidnapped by Equilibrium whose brains have been removed and installed on stolen ships. Threatened with pain and death, these poor unfortunates have no other choice but to cooperate in the hope of one day recovering their bodies, and so they guide these ships in sneak attacks that fuel the animosity between the various players. Despite the shock of his situation, despite understanding he’s alone and vulnerable, Daquin manages to tap his inner strength and defeat his captors’ purposes in one of the most breath-taking escape scenes I can remember: the character’s unique voice, the way he relates his story, are one of the best examples of what I most enjoy in Scalzi’s writing.
The situation itself required a fine balance between contrasting emotions: try to imagine discovering someone removed your brain from the body and made you a slave to their purposes; try to imagine being confined to a dark void most of the time, in sensory deprivation, with only a disembodied voice as your sole contact with the outside world. After the understandable initial shock, though, Daquin reacts and he’s able to both relate what happens and to make caustic comments on his situation and his captors, showing he possesses a core of strength no one suspected. He’s not a square-jawed hero, not by a long shot, but he’s an intelligent, very flexible person forced to deal with a limited set of options and able to adapt to them and come up winning: it’s impossible not to root for him and at the same time find him totally believable. Only Scalzi, through the subtle blending of drama and humor that’s his trademark, could do this in such a convincing way.
2. This Hollow Union
Here we encounter again one of the players in the previous book, Hafte Sorvalh, the second most important individual in the Conclave hierarchy, and the focus shifts from the adventurous to the political, since the imbalance in the overall situation is affecting this alien United-Nations-like organization as well.
If you fear that the pace might slow because of this change in mood, rest assured it’s not so: first because Sorvalh is a fascinating individual, totally alien in outlook (there’s a brief aside on the customs of her civilization that shows how utterly alien her people are), but at the same time also totally relatable from a human standpoint: her pragmatism and directness come across any racial barrier. Second, because the political machinations inside the Conclave itself are as intricate and dangerous as those of Earth: watching Sorvalh navigate these waters, listening to the workings of her mind, is as intriguing as a space battle, if not more. I believe Scalzi must be very fond of this character, because her depths and her many facets are a strong forward-moving element in the story.
3. Can Long Endure
In this segment Scalzi gives us a peek in the life of a platoon of C.D.F. soldiers tasked with the difficult peacekeeping (sort of) missions required by the increasing number of colonies attempting to escape the Colonial Union’s control. In a short number of pages he fleshes out these previously unknown characters and then gives them the difficult job of presenting the moral quandary at the basis of this story’s events: it’s clear that the Colonial Union is not a benign entity, as readers suspected long ago, and in the wake of global unrest its response to the colonies’ need for independence is not so different from the British Empire’s at the time of the American revolution. Where does that leave our soldiers? In a very difficult position indeed, because they can see – even sympathize with – the rebels’ point of view, but at the same time they must fulfill their obligations, those they assumed when they accepted a new, young and healthy body. As two of them say at some point:
“I’m not surprised we have a civil war on our hands right now. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”
“And yet here we are,” I said. “You and me, in their uniform.”
“We didn’t want to die old,” Powell said.
There is no easy answer to this moral question, as it should be – but it forces us to think, and that’s what matters.
4. To Stand or Fall
The last installment in this sequence of stories is the one where the events built until now come together for the grand finale, the showdown between the major players – the Colonial Union, the Conclave and Equilibrium. It also marks the return of the main characters from the previous book – like Harry Wilson and Ambassador Abumwe – and their interaction with the ones presented in this book.
It had all the elements to be involving and exhilarating, and it is – but not in a totally satisfactory way.
There is a huge buildup, a long preparation for the final confrontation, but when push comes to shove… it all happens off-screen, depriving us of the epic encounter we were looking for. I can’t hide my disappointment in this narrative choice, especially because I expected much more from an author I admire exactly for his story-telling abilities: there might be a reason, one that we will discover in the next book, but still I feel as you do when you open a present and don’t find what you were hoping for…
Nonetheless, if sometimes even Homer nods, I guess other authors are allowed to do the same: The End of All Things remains a highly enjoyable book, and a must for all Scalzi fans.
I’m thrilled to add that I’ve been contacted by Esther Bochner at Audible with the proposal of sharing a sample of the audiobook for The End of All Things, narrated by Tavia Gilbert and William Dufris. My thanks for this great opportunity to showcase a book I enjoyed in a different way.
So here it is, the beginning of The Life of the Mind: enjoy!