An advance copy of John Scalzi's The Last Colony arrived today. I sat down after class, telling myself I'd just read a few pages, and lost the rest of the work day. (More than once, a new John Scalzi book has done terrible things to my productivity. Thank God for tenure.) It brings to an immensely satisfying conclusion the trilogy that began with Old Man's War (which I reviewed here). Scalzi returns to John Perry as the POV character, this time in a story that's more political mystery than military sci fi.
What the Colonial Union is up to and why becomes the critical question for Perry. Until he figures it out, after which stewing on a response becomes even more critical.
Scalzi has written passionately about the need for science fiction to become less insular:
"... if you look at the significant SF books of the last several years, there aren't very many you could give to the uninitiated reader; they all pretty much implicitly or explicitly assume you've been keeping up with the genre, because the writers themselves have. The SF literary community is like a boarding school; we're all up to our armpits in each other's business, literary and otherwise (and then there's the sodomy. But let's not go there)."
"... Fantasy literature has numerous open doors for the casual reader. How many does SF literature have? More importantly, how many is SF perceived to have? Any honest follower of the genre has to admit the answers are "few" and "even fewer than that," respectively. The most accessible SF we have today is stuff that was written decades ago by people who are now dead."
"Thanks to numerous horrifying lunchroom experiences growing up, SF geeks are probably perfectly happy to be let alone with their genre and to let the mundanes read whatever appalling chick lit and/or Da Vinci Code clone they're slobbering over this week (Now, there would be a literary mashup for the ages: The Templars Wore Prada! It'd sell millions!)."
But not Scalzi. Instead, he's been writing immensely accessible novels (except maybe The Android's Dream, which tellingly is my least favorite of his novels to date). Despite its SF trappings, for example, TLC reminds me more of Allen Drury's novels of political suspense, with a little Robert Ludlum-style wheels within wheels conspiracy theory story thrown in too, than it does most SF. Indeed, to continue the analogy to political thrillers, there's even a subplot that's a variant on the good old sleeping killer story. All of which means that, if Tor can manage the marketing trick, the OMW to TLC trilogy ought to reach readers who ordinarily would never be caught dead in the sci fi section of their bookstore.
Perry's solution to his political problems has considerable elegance, as does Scalzi's plotting and writing. (No hack writer he.) The pace is quick, and the plot is taut. There aren't a lot of subplots and most of them end up being essential. (There's one subplot involving spears whose purpose I haven't quite figured out and about which I won't say more for risk of offering spoilers. But once you've read it, maybe you can explain to me whether that story line is anything more than local color.)
Do you need to have read the first two books in the series for TLC to make sense? No. As one reviewer has written: "John Scalzi has styled this novel to stand well on it's own. The book starts with great humor that brings the reader into the story easily and comfortably. You never get the feeling that your starting from the back of the series. John gives you two pages of intro in John Perry's universe and then blasts off."
Having said that, however, you'd be missing a real treat. If you haven't already read the first two novels, grab them too and then set aside a couple of days to immerse yourself.