John Scalzi’s Zöe’s Tale is a 2009 Hugo Award nominee for Best Novel.
Zöe’s Tale is a novel about growing up as a teenager in a very dangerous part of the universe. Zöe Boutin Perry, the lively and often sarcastic narrator, hopes not only to survive but also to enjoy life, to have friends and fall in love and all that regular human stuff. Standing in the way of that hope is the Conclave, a coalition of aliens who want to destroy every colony created without their approval, and the Colonial Union, a human government that considers Zöe’s colony a reasonable sacrifice.
On Zöe’s side are her best friend, Gretchen, and first love, Enzo. Then there’s John Perry, her adoptive father and narrator of the first and third Old Man’s War novels, Jane Sagan, her genetically augmented super-soldier mother, and two members of the Obin race (more on them later).
The novel begins with colonists onboard the transport ship approaching the planet upon which they’ll settle, celebrating the New Year. Anyone who has read The Last Colony (and I assume that’s pretty much everyone who would read Zöe’s Tale) knows that everything to do with the inauspiciously named Roanoke colony goes wrong the moment they arrive. The exuberance and hope of New Years Eve, in contrast to the reader’s foreknowledge of all shit due to hit the fan, serves as an apt introduction to Zöe’s life. On one side, the ups and downs of youth, the rapid-fire passion and high school idealism. Zöe is young, full of opinions and enthusiasm. On the other side, the weight of living in a place doomed to fail, constantly in peril, utterly abandoned.
As a review over at Strange Horizons put it, “all of this is really fun to read about, because John Scalzi is at heart an entertainer, and he is at his best when he maps out big plots and sends his characters careening through them.” I couldn’t agree more. Despite the constant dangers of non-human invasion and human conspiracy, the protagonist’s needs, emotions and flaws remain at the center throughout each book in the Old Man’s War series. Scalzi has a knack for keeping his characters’ humanity in focus. Even in a massive and threatening universe, the reader doesn’t loose track of the human element along the way.
Zöe has neither her father’s unusually long lifespan and experience nor her mother’s powerful genetic modifications to help her. But it was never the superhuman enhancements that made John Perry and Jane Sagan good characters. It’s the decisions they make, how they face the struggles of life, which matter most.
The same is true of Zöe. I enjoy her as a narrator. Her youth doesn’t automatically equal naiveté, but there is an emotional openness to her I find refreshing. To her, the pains of life cut directly; there are no calluses built up.
Zöe’s relationship with the Obin is every bit as interesting as her dealings with human beings. Zöe’s biological father Charles Boutin (whose activities were the focus of The Ghost Brigades) had augmented the Obin to give them consciousness. The Obin therefore regard Zöe as something of a goddess and sent two representatives, whom she named Hickory and Dickory, to observe and protect her. Most of the philosophical questions that arise in Zöe’s Tale pertain to the Obin, questions of a hive-mind versus individual identity and consciousness. It’s not simply one of those Star Trek scenes questioning Data’s “humanity” (which get irritating when season after season he’s so obviously sentient and conscious, machine or no). The Obin are able to turn individual consciousness on and off, an idea I find difficult to wrap my brain around, but fun to ponder. For more on the Obin/consciousness question, you can read my interview with Scalzi here.
(Gotta admit, here, I find it a little far fetched that a 17 year old with an entire alien race adoring her wouldn’t use that to her advantage a bit more often and for less altruistic reasons than she does. She’s less greedy than I’d have been, anyway!)
Questions of character and voice aside, how does Zöe’s Tale fare as a stand-alone novel? It succeeds as an interesting parallel to The Last Colony, but I don’t think it can be read independent of that. Her story requires the context of the rest of the series. The rest of the series doesn’t require her story in return.
As the only Hugo Best Novel nominee this year that isn’t a pure stand-alone book, I wonder if that may weigh against it. But honestly, I don’t care. Zöe’s Tale adds a lot to the Old Man’s War universe: new perspectives on older characters and situations, a more thorough look at the Obin and an answer to what the hell happened to the so-called Werewolves on Roanoke. Best of all it gives us Zöe, a pretty minor character in the other books but an intriguing, intelligent and worthy hero in her own story.
When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.