There aren’t many authors in the SF field where I can claim both of these statements are true:
- I have read every one of their published novels.
- I make sure I grab and read their books as soon as they are published.
John Scalzi is one of those authors; in fact, the only other two I can think of are Steven Brust and Terry Goodkind. Mike Resnick would be on the list except he’s written so much stuff over the years I’ll never catch up with the backlog, but I’m trying…
The reality is that there’s more SF and Fantasy published in the US in a month than I could reasonably read in a year; add in horror, historical fiction and spy thriller/mystery fiction as areas I dabble in to a lesser degree and the chance I’ll ever come close to keeping up with the field is ludicrous. In many ways this is a good thing, since choice and diversity are great — but it also means that no matter what, there are going to be books and authors I’ll never get to. To be honest about it — in my years involved with SFWA I got to know way more authors than I could keep up with, so even limiting it to “friends and acquaintances” is a big fail.
So I don’t even try. Back in the days when I was publishing OtherRealms, I set myself the goal of making sure at least every fifth book was by an author I’d never read before. I still try to keep to that today — it forces me to explore the diversity and the new voices of the field, but it means I’m less likely to read deeply within the works of any specific author. It helps that I tend to shy away from pure series authors and long series, unless they’re really extra-ordinary (and note for the record that one of the authors above is Terry Goodkind, who is both, so obviously, it’s not a hard and unbreakable rule. But the why of that’s for some other time.)
Which brings me, in the long way around, to John Scalzi. I don’t remember how I got turned onto Scalzi, but it was probably people sending me pointers to things on his blog, Whatever. I liked the writing, and even better, the attitude behind it. So I gave Old Man’s War, his first novel a try. Halfway through I ordered The Ghost Brigades so I could dive into it immediately. This was 2007, and The Last Colony had just come out in hardcover, so I grabbed it, too. And The Android’s Dream.
This isn’t typical of me. I rarely buy hardcovers any more, more because of space than cost — and the sad realization that my reading backlog is such that I rarely GET to a book before it comes out in paperback. The Kindle and ebooks are changing this for me, since I’ve made a commitment to buy as few dead trees as absolutely necessary and so I now target the electronic edition of a book (and sorry, if you don’t publish an ebook version, I’ll probably not buy it for a long time).
But over a three month period, I read four Scalzi novels. And since then, whenever a new one’s come out, I’ve grabbed it and put it at the front of the line. Why?
He’s a very good writer, and a very clear writer. He has a strong voice, he’s not afraid to take a strong position, he’s not afraid to challenge difficult topics, and he’s not afraid to challenge himself — but ultimately, his books are solid, good, entertaining reads. The series starting with Old Man’s War (and also including Zoe’s Tale and The Sagan Diary) is a new take on some classic SF themes — interstellar warfare and galactic politics. Scalzi’s an admitted fan of Heinlein, and this series starts by taking Starship Troopers and re-imagining it and expanding its scope to look at the bigger issues around the conflict and the people involved within the conflict.
Old Man’s War tweaks Starship Troopers in a new direction; take your elderly population and offer them a new life — if they enlist, they get a new young body. If they survive the wars, they go off as colonists to one of the newer outposts within human space. There’s a nod to Joe Haldeman’s Forever War here, in that as you get further into the series, it becomes obvious less obvious what you’re fighting for and why. In Ghost Brigades, Scalzi looks at this body translation from a different direction, where the military uses the DNA of dead people to create soldiers they then raise and teach, rather than transfer the memories of a person. These Ghost Soldiers are human — but not completely humanlike. In some ways it’s almost as if they’ve raised an entire army of functioning autistics and he does a good job of leaving you feeling a bit uncomfortable with the result. In the third book, The Last Colony, Scalzi takes his soldiers and releases them from military duty and sends them off to colonize a world, which gets complicated in various ways that bring forward the real questions of why the war is being fought and who your friends and enemies really are, and what necessary things you do to protect what you care about.
It’s a fast-paced, entertaining read, but it has a quite complex subtext underneath it. I can’t recommend these books highly enough.
And then he went off and did a couple more books in the series — Zoe’s Tale is the story retold, but from the point of view of one of the other characters, who just happens to be a teenaged girl. To be honest, I don’t think there’s an idea that scares most male adult writers than writing a book with a strong and honest female character, much less a teen-aged one. To me, Scalzi pulled it off; more importantly, when I’ve talked or read about the reactions of girls, they seem to think so, too. Circling back into a story is always a risk, because the reader knows how it’s going to turn out, so you have to find other ways to keep then entertained and interested. In this, Scalzi succeeds. In the final book of the series, The Sagan Diary, Scalzi takes a closer look at the Ghost Soldiers with a shorter work written as a series of diary entries by one of the Ghost Soldiers, who realizes she is different than “real” humans and is trying to figure out how to become one. it’s a shorter work published via small press, but it’s a fascinating read.
Along the way, I’ve picked up some of his other works. Android’s Dream is just a weirdly interesting book. If you can imaging Phillip K Dick going off on a long weekend with Keith Laumer’s Retief of the CDT, then you have some idea of what you’re in store for here. If you can’t; well, grab a copy and settle in for a fun and crazy trip. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing is aimed at people who think they want to write for a living — and is a book where Scalzi’s sense of humor (we could call it wry, we could call it dry or sardonic, but honestly, the best word for it is snide) comes out in full force. it’s a fun read — and has a lot of really good material on the reality of the writing life. If you are thinking of being a writer, you ought to read it, because it’ll give you a perspective you won’t find in the “work hard and keep trying! and buy my next book!” writing books out there… Another book where his sense of humor is in full swing is Agent to the Stars, which is a pure skiffy romp through a first contact story that both covers some serious issues (how do you think the world would react to real little green men?) without ever taking itself very seriously. Lots of fun.
And finally, his most recent work, The God Engines. Another shorter book, here Scalzi shifts gears completely and writes a darkish fantasy, albeit one with spaceships. Those spaceships are driven not by machines and physics, but by beings, and those beings are not always willing, and so there’s a societal conflict over what is effectively kidnap and torture for the common good — and the implications of what that means to the people (and other things) involved.
I’ve been waiting (somewhat) patiently for his next book, and it hits the stores this week. Fuzzy Nation is based on the classic by H. Beam Piper and is somewhere between a sequel and a re-imagining. I’ve already ordered mine, and it’ll be going with me on my trip next week.
If you haven’t read Scalzi, you should; start with Old Man’s War, his first novel, but he was very much a mature writer when he took this on. I also suggest God Engines as an introduction, and I expect I’ll be recommending Fuzzy Nation once I read it as well. The rest of his Old Man’s War series should be read in sequence, it’s not something you can pick books out at random. And if you like Old Man’s War, you’ll like the rest of the series, because he keeps the quality up throughout, and the story he tells is sustained through the entire series. All of his stuff is recommended; he hasn’t disappointed me yet. And that’s rare.