Monday, 11 July 2016

The End of All Things

If you like fast-paced space opera with witty characters and an emphasis on violence and warfare, you'll enjoy Old Man's War, the first book in John Scalzi's still-growing series. It's got good characters, an enjoyable plot and sets the scene of a brutal universe out to kill humanity. The Ghost Brigades followed up the first book by introducing new moral depths and fleshing out the universe to the point where ambiguities and questions could be exploited by the third and fourth books, The Last Colony and Zoe's Tale. What had been a clear case of rooting for humanity was now much more morally grey; realpolitik in the stars mattered and humanity's interests were thrown into sharp relief as other races were shown to be sympathetic and realistic, with interests of their own which clashed with humanity's expansionist policy.

The growth of the series has meant a scaling back of the action sequences and an upping of diplomatic relations. Imagine Band of Brothers slowly giving way to a series like The West Wing, only knowing that the first series remains ongoing in the background, and you'll have a rough idea of what seems to be going on in the universe of Old Man's War.

The End of All Things is the sixth book in the series and it continues its predecessors' good work in building a believable universe where politics and diplomacy matter as much as military might, and where co-operation, in true Star Trek fashion, is the best way to further the interests of all involved. Don't misunderstand me: the zany characters, strong dialogue (aside: I once taught a seminar on dialogue and used Scalzi's dialogue as an example of how it should be done; it's organic, readable and builds character by showing and not telling), visceral action sequences and moral ambiguity of the early books are still there, but if you've read the first book and skipped ahead you might struggle to believe they're the same series. Things have changed.

Structurally, The End of All Things builds on the episodic structure of The Human Division, combining four separate novellas into one linked narrative. Each novella has its own point of view character and differs from those around it. The first focuses on a brain in a box. The second is pure realpolitik. The third is as close to military science fiction as this instalment gets. The fourth ties them all up, and quite nicely.

It's hard not to be impressed by Scalzi's workmanship. He really is one of the best SF writers of this generation, with his finger on the pulse of both popular (and niche) culture and international politics. He provides both a snapshot of the world and a vision for how it could be made better. The introduction of other viewpoints from humanity's in earlier books is built on in this volume; the fact he has taken a step back to examine events from alternative perspective paints a fresh picture and removes any ideas of good and evil in the face of aggressive interests from all parties. Morality is very much on the back burner.

I enjoyed The End of All Things. It isn't high-octane military science fiction, it's true, and it often raises more questions than it provides answers, but it's still a compelling, fast-paced read which intrigues and delights in equal measure. The whole series is highly recommended, and this is no different.

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