Warp-speed Action: The End of All Things by John Scalzi, Episode One: “The Life of the Mind”

The End of All Things is John Scalzi’s sixth foray into the Old Man’s War universe, and a direct sequel to The Human Division (2013). Like its predecessor, it is being serialized prior to the paperback release, albeit in four rather than thirteen parts. This review series will follow the serialization schedule, with an entry for each episode.

The trick to doing a serialized review, of course, is to ensure that each part is judged simultaneously on its own merits and in terms of how it fits within the overall narrative. Thankfully I have some experience with this, having written a serialized review of The Human Division in 2013 (check out the first entry, or my final thoughts, if you are so inclined). But enough about all that—on to Episode One of The End of All Things: “The Life of the Mind!”

Warning: spoilers for The Human Division were an inevitable consequence of writing this review.

The Human Division ended on a cliffhanger, with Harry Wilson and company barely escaping the attack on Earth Station. The attack was carried out by the ghost ships whose disappearance the crew of the Clarke were tasked with investigating, and which, we learned, are piloted by the disembodied consciousness of their kidnapped pilots. Nearly all Earth governments, however, blame the Colonial Union for the disaster, a political rupture that appears to have been the ultimate goal of the attack. But it is still not clear who or what is behind the anti-Union conspiracy.

“The Life of the Mind” is structured as a memoir—the recollections of one Rafe Daquin, a former pilot on the cargo vessel Chandler, who has been asked by the Colonial Union to relay the story of how he became one of the aforementioned disembodied consciousnesses. He is an old college friend of Hart Schmidt, Ambassador Abumwe’s adjutant and Harry Wilson’s straight-man sidekick; and in fact it is Schmidt who gets him the job on the Chandler.

Daquin thinks the Chandler is a run-of-the-mill cargo vessel carrying goods from Phoenix Station to the Huckleberry colony. However, he soon learns that Assistant Secretary of State Tyson Ocampo will be on board as a passenger to Huckleberry, where he plans to vacation. Only, as the ship leaves Phoenix Station, the captain learns that there she has been given an encrypted key with coordinates to an unknown destination—a diplomatic rendezvous, it seems. But nothing, really, is as it seems…

 

So How Was It?

This is vintage Scalzi. Action moves at warp speed, even when people are just standing around talking. And it’s full of the dry humor and snark that are his bread and butter. Those who enjoy this approach will doubtlessly feel at home. Yet he doesn’t cake it on too thick either, as he sometimes can (for example, in Redshirts).

It also helps that Daquin is a strong narrator—likeable and easy to relate to—while the central mystery unfolds nicely. We learn quite a bit about the conspirators, including just enough about their motives to satisfy the search for answers without revealing too much. And Scalzi takes an engagingly playful approach to space operatic tropes and clichés.

As far as the serialization goes, though I haven’t read the rest of the book yet, it’s already clear from “The Life of the Mind” that The End of All Things benefits from changes in format and schedule. The Human Division’s serialization format, divided into 13 episodes, clearly aimed to capture the experience of television. The result was pretty hit-or miss, with some episodes well suited to the staggered release schedule, and others…not so much. The End of All Things, by contrast, is divided into 4 novellas, which is both a more traditionally science fictional mode of serialization, and one that I imagine will tighten focus on the central narrative.

Yet it still reminds me of TV. Ironically, perhaps, reversion to the classic novel-from-novellas format also seems to mimic a more current mode of television consumption: binge-watching.

You see, part one of “The Life of the Mind” feels like a season opener for a plot-heavy, binge-friendly show like Lost. Not that it’s substantively like Lost, mind you, but just that gives you that same insatiable urge to keep going, and the same claw-at-your-skin feeling when you realized—in the days when it was on network TV, and before all that time travel mishigas—there’s seven days to go before you can do that. Only, you don’t actually have to wait seven days this time—there are two more parts to consume, each of which feels like an individual episode, but which also fit snugly together. So sit back, relax and get ready to read 100+ pages in a single sitting. At least, that’s what I did—even when my dry, reddened eyes desperately called out for sleep.

So, in that sense, “The Life of the Mind” captures everything I loved about The Human Division while mitigating the structural problems underlying the previous volume’s unevenness. At the same time, though I thoroughly enjoyed this introduction to Daquin, I do look forward to the return of Wilson and the crew of the Clarke.

I also wonder where the book is going, thematically speaking. Is this just a rip-roaring space adventure—the kind some feel we need more of—or is it aiming to be something deeper? I’ve always appreciated how the original Old Man’s War trilogy presents itself as homage to Starship Troopers, yet also critiques the source material’s straightforward militarism. You could get into it because it tells a good story, or you could get into it because it does that and has something profound to say. In that context, I could even accept the trilogy’s reliance on the tired and unrealistic “United Space of America” trope. After all, the act of subversion requires setup.

But with this duology, I’m not quite sure what’s being subverted. Not that there’s anything wrong with straightforward adventure—far from it. Not all fiction needs to be message-driven, nor does the presence/absence of explicit messages, ipso facto, make/break the book. It’s just that, as readers of my column are already aware, I gravitate toward books do shed light on the human condition in some way or another. And I don’t see the roadmap from here to there yet. Maybe it’s coming, though?

We’ll find out next time….

The Life of the Mind is available now from Tor Books.
Read excerpts from The Life of the Mind as well as episode two, This Hollow Union, here on Tor.com

The G is founder and co-editor of the group blog ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’, which covers SF/F and crime fiction, comics, cult films and video games. He moonlights as an academic.

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