All reviews copyright 1994-2018 Evelyn C. Leeper.
THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE by John Scalzi:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/04/2017]
The "high concept" description for THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE by John Scalzi (ISBN 978-0-7653-8888-9) would be "Asimov's Foundation books with a climate change stand-in." Instead of the "Galactic Empire" there is the "Interdependency". Rather than generic faster-than-light travel, the Interdependency is tied together by "the Flow": wormholes (I guess) that make it possible to get from point A to point B in a matter of weeks or months, but only is there is a Flow from point A to Point B. Otherwise, it takes however long conventional ships take (years, decades, centuries, ...). There is even a chamber where holographic images of previous Emperors appear and give advice.
The Flow has been stable for the several hundred years it has been known. But now it is shifting, and if it shifts away from a place near planet Whatever, then planet Whatever is effectively cut off from the rest of the Interdependency--getting there would have to be done the old-fashioned way, slower than light. Physicists and some politicians are trying to alert the Interdependency, but other politicians are convinced it is all paranoia, or a hoax, and refuse to believe it (hence the climate change parallel).
There are differences from Asimov, of course. The main one is that there is no gender inequality in this future, and so ship captains, CEOs, and even Emperors are as likely to be women as men. (In fact, the title is not Emperor, but Emperox.) And for what it is worth, Scalzi does not overlook some of the usually ignored aspects of this, like cramps. (Susan Calvin had a lot of problems, but apparently never had cramps.)
Scalzi writes in an easy-to-follow manner, with names lacking superfluous apostrophes or unpronounceable diphthongs; his characters' names actually also have an Asimovian sound to them, while still maintaining a connection to Earth names. Ghreni, Amit, and Nadashe Nohamapetan's names semm to have their origins in south Asia, while Blinnikka appears to be Finnish.
My only hesitation in recommending this is that, just like Asimov's FOUNDATION, this is the first of a series.
To order The Collapsing Empire from amazon.com, click here.
THE DISPATCHER by John Scalzi:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/02/2018]
THE DISPATCHER by John Scalzi (ISBN 978-1-59606-786-8) has an interesting premise, but the problem is that it is a ridiculous premise. Even if one accepts the basic framework, the details are clearly contrived to fit the story. SPOILERS AHEAD! The idea is that at some point in the future, things change and people who are murdered resurrect back in their own beds. People who just die or commit suicide do not. There is no explanation for either the resurrection or the teleportation, and someone like Ted Chiang would spend his time examining the theological and philosophical implications. Scalzi mentions these implications, but really skims over them to spend most of his time on the plot, involving the details of what all this means in terms of how it is used (and mis- used). The first effect is that the job of "dispatcher" is created; a dispatcher is authorized to kill someone who is about to die, so that they will resurrect. For example, if someone is about to die after being hit by a car, a dispatcher can kill him, thereby letting him come back to life. There is a certain amount of reset as well--clearly coming back to life in the same condition one was one second before dying is not very helpful.
All this has its own appeal (the same appeal that C.S.I. has, for example), but the artificiality of the "rules" Scalzi sets up detract from it. Recommended, but as a physical "what if" rather than a philosophical work.
To order The Dispatcher from amazon.com, click here.
THE LAST COLONY by John Scalzi:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/25/2008]
THE LAST COLONY by John Scalzi (ISBN-13 978-0-765-31697-4, ISBN-10 0-765-31697-8) is a classic science fiction novel. It doesn't need a six-page glossary. It doesn't have an impenetrable style. It just tells the story of a group of colonists caught in a mess: militarily, politically, sociologically, and environmentally. Whether the resolution is entirely plausible, I am not sure, but I'm willing to suspend disbelief. For all those who yearn for "science fiction like they used to write," this is recommended.
To order The Last Colony from amazon.com, click here.
OLD MAN'S WAR by John Scalzi:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/05/2006]
In 1959 was STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert A. Heinlein. In 1975 was THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman. And now in 2005 we have OLD MAN'S WAR by John Scalzi (ISBN 0-765-30940-8). Heinlein postulated a world in which military service was a prerequisite for a life of citizenship. Scalzi postulates a world in which a life of citizenship was a prerequisite for military service. Heinlein (a veteran of World War II, but not of combat) presents the war in STARSHIP TROOPERS as being the right thing to do--in fact, he does not even seem to consider that war might be a bad thing. Haldeman (a combat veteran of Vietnam) presents the war in THE FOREVER WAR as a bad thing. According to Matthew Appleton's review in "The New York Review of Science Fiction", Scalzi has not read THE FOREVER WAR. However, he presents a view somewhere between the two: wars may be bad, but they may be necessary. (The romance in OLD MAN'S WAR is more reminiscent of Haldeman than of Heinlein, though.) The writing style is straightforward (the phrase "workmanlike Campbellian prose" comes to mind), and in general that is a classic military science fiction novel that--except for the 2005 sensibilities--could have been written fifty years ago. (I mean this as a compliment.) I'm not telling you any of the details of the book, because how the military works, or how the war goes, is something best left to Scalzi to unfold. But it is certainly a worthy Hugo nominee.
To order Old Man's War from amazon.com, click here.
REDSHIRTS by John Scalzi:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/14x/2012]
REDSHIRTS by John Scalzi (ISBN 978-0-7653-1699-8) takes place on the Universal Union Capital Ship "Intrepid" in the year 2456. Andrew Dahl, a new ensign on the ship, begins to realize that he is living in a universe that appears to be, well, illogical. Every Away Mission ends up with some minor crew member dead in some peculiar, unlikely, improbable way, and although one of the officers is often injured, he always recovers fast enough to be back at work within hours. Others have noticed this, too, and soon they are trying to figure out why this is the case. The problem is that the explanation is obvious to the reader, and one finds oneself thinking, "GALAXY QUEST did this first" (or something very like this, which is encapsulated in Sigourney Weaver/Gwen DeMarco's reaction to the chompers: "Whoever wrote this episode should die.").
Scalzi does have something beyond this, and it is based on the difference between GALAXY QUEST and REDSHIRTS. In GALAXY QUEST, there are real people (well, Thermians) who think that a television show is the real world, and that the actors from it are actually the characters they play. They then construct their world (as much as possible) to match the television show.
In REDSHIRTS, the "real" world is the television show, and, as one character says, "There's no way to hide from this. There's no way to run from it. There's no way to avoid fate. If the Narrative exists--and you and I know it does--then in the end we don't have free will. Sooner or later the Narrative will come for each of us. It'll use it however it wants to use us. And then we'll die from it." (page 136) The GALAXY QUEST characters are not controlled by any explicit "Narrative" (a.k.a. God), though they are constrained by the laws of their universe insofar as they have constructed their equipment to match the television show (e.g., the computer responds to only Weaver's voice).
Scalzi did a report on the Creation Museum at Renovation. Though he did not say so, that and this seem consistent with the idea that he is an atheist, yet when I read his blog and other writings, I think he has a more nuanced belief. On the one hand, the comparison of God with a bad script writer can hardly be considered favorable to God. On the other, Scalzi does not impute the level of evil to God that an author like Philip Pullman does. You will have to read it and decide it for yourself.
There's also some discussions about whether the 2456 future is the future of the 2010 of the writers of "Chronicles of the Intrepid", or if it is a separate timeline. (After all, as someone notes, there is no "Chronicles of the Intrepid" show in the past of the characters on the "Intrepid".) This is not dissimilar from discussions about time travel and alternate history paradoxes, so this is not entirely new.
To order Redshirts from amazon.com, click here.
"Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue" by John Scalzi:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/29/2012]
Regarding "Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue" by John Scalzi (Tor.com), humor is an iffy proposition. When it works, it's great. When it doesn't, it's painful. This was painful.
UNLOCKED by x:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/25/2019]
UNLOCKED by John Scalzi (ISBN 978-1-250-30799-6) also has multiple first-person narrators. In this case, however, these are presented as something like parts of interviews or report, each labeled at the start with the name of the source of that section. Though most of it is focused on the progression of a debilitating, often deadly disease (which renders its survivors incapable of even the slightest voluntary motion), the book is ultimately more concerned with the social changes that come out of the research to treat the effects of the disease. As such, the reader may discover that what seemed like a subsidiary plot that they skimmed over is actually the point of the book.
To order Unlocked from amazon.com, click here.