Much was made about John Scalzi’s recent $3.5M deal with Tor books (10 years, 13 books) and I can think of few authors as deserving. While I haven’t read all of Scalzi’s work everything I have read has been somewhere around fantastic. I am a particular fan of the Old Man’s War universe and have thoroughly enjoyed each successive work set there. The End of All Things is the hardcover release of Scalzi’s latest Old Man’s War novel which was previously serialized on Tor.com. I greatly enjoyed Scalzi first serialized Old Man’s War work in The Human Division so I eagerly snatched this up when Tor sent me a review copy. It should be said that for anyone new to the universe first seen in Old Man’s War, The End of All Things is not necessarily the place to start. It primarily builds on the events in The Human Division but a general knowledge of past events seen in Old Man’s War, Zoe’s Tale, and The Last Colony will definitely help readers.
The End of All Things opens with the Colonial Union in dire straits. After keeping Earth in the dark and essentially farming its population for recruits to use as both colonists and members of the Colonial Defense Force the Union finds itself suddenly on its own. Humanity is now divided into two main camps, Earth and the Colonial Union, with the Union struggling to keep it down to just two. To further complicate matters the alien Conclave, while now officially neutral towards humanity (both divisions), contains disparate and fanatical elements who see humanity as a threat and the current strained relations between the Colonial Union and Earth as major opportunity. The End of All Things is written as a series of novellas linked together with several different characters and overarching themes.
The End of All Things begins with a section entitled The Life of the Mind, introducing a new character in the pilot Rafe Daquin. While the CDF gives humans new bodies designed for war the transference of human consciousness is essentially to the series but never something that has been completely explored it is perhaps a bit of a minor spoiler to say that The Life of the Mind explores these ideas a bit more directly. Rafe takes a job about The Chandler and the ship is quickly tasked (secretly) with escorting a high-level Colonial Union politician. On this mission The Chandler is captured and its crew disposed of; Rafe included. However, Rafe awakens to find that he is now a prisoner with a very unique situation. Scalzi touches upon the horror of Rafe’s situation a little bit, particularly when Rafe encounters other prisoners, but by and large Rafe’s focus on revenge feature more prominently here. The Life of the Mind is like a piece of fiction aimed directly at me and I could think of few other ways to get me engaged with The End of All Things.
This Hollow Union comes next with what I think is Scalzi’s first alien perspective. Hafte Sorvalh is the advisor to the head of the Conclave, she seems to generally enjoy her job even if her boss’s decisions are sometimes frustrating. Scalzi does a great job underscoring Hafte’s loyalty and her reluctance to assume any sort of real political power. This Hollow Union represents the first real glimpse of the Conclave as a whole. Previously used as sort of a Colonial Union bogeyman Scalzi paints the Conclave as an organization more fractious than humanity was initially lead to believe. While we get some biological and cultural background on Hafte’s species I can’t help but note how human the aliens manage to feel. To be fair, I can name relatively few instances in fiction where the aliens truly feel alien (the Dwellers from The Algebraist come to mind) so I’m not sure that is a valid complaint; merely an observation. The political maneuvering in the Conclave is still interesting and entertaining in a way different than the prisoner drama and post-human technothriller feel of The Life of the Mind. There are some massive events that occur within This Hollow Union that majorly shake up the political landscape of the Conclave and make humanity’s position in the universe a difficult one.
We return to human space for Can Long Endure where we following along with a group of Colonial Defense Force troopers as they are sped around the universe to “troubleshoot” (emphasis on the shoot) the various colony planets that are suddenly bucking under the thumb of the Colonial Union. If nothing else Can Long Endure focuses on consequences; underscoring the aftereffects of the Colonial Unions authoritarian rule. It is an excellent glimpse of the human cost not just in how the colonies are not-quite rebelling but how the constant action is taking its toll on the men and women who represent Colonial Union authority. Heather Lee and her Colonial Defense Squad are a fun bunch, just doing their job and not afraid to verbally bitch about that fact. However, as the job wears on Scalzi shows how the tensions wears on the troops through their conversations with one another. Towards the end of Can Long Endure Scalzi begins to gather his threads together.
To Stand or Fall, the final section in The End of All Things, brings back some familiar favorites in the former of Harry Wilson, Schimdt, Abumwe, and Lowen. The first three sections/novellas offer the set up while To Stand or Fall centers on the payoff. While it’s certainly entertaining to witness all of the maneuvering from the previous sections bear fruit there is in truth very little tension that arrises in To Stand or Fall. None of the characters every really feel like they are in any real sense of danger and we learn very little new about anything. Things are scripted perhaps a bit too well. It doesn’t quite verge into boring but watching the elaborately choreographed final act does fall a little flat.
While The End of All Things isn’t a good place to start reading the work of John Scalzi it does makes for a fitting end to this chapter in the Old Man War universe. There is a radical shift in the status quo the makes for ample room for further explorations in the future but with a satisfying, albeit perhaps too neat, ending that doesn’t leave me desperate for more. As with every book by Scalzi that I’ve read I enjoyed it quite thoroughly. It doesn’t come close to my favorite Scalzi work, The God Engines, and I hope that the security of Scalzi’s Tor deal affords him the opportunity to explore some more challenging fiction.