A Surprising Interlude: The End of All Things by John Scalzi, Episode Two: “This Hollow Union”

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. Last week, I reviewed Episode 1: “The Life of the Mind.” This week, I am reading Episode 2: “This Hollow Union.”

Warning: spoilers for The Human Division and previous episodes of The End of All Things were an inevitable consequence of writing this review.

After “The Life of the Mind,” I expected Scalzi to shift perspective back to Harry Wilson, Ambassador Abumwe and the former crew of the Clarke, now joined by Rafe Daquin—the disembodied mind of the Chandler. So it came as a surprise to find out that “This Hollow Union” would instead come from the perspective of the second most powerful individual in the Conclave, Hafte Sorvalh.

You may remember Sorvalh from The Human Division, where she ate a churro and established important backchannel lines of communication with both Earth and the Colonial Union. Now Sorvalh aids her boss, General Tarsem Gau, navigate anti-human hostility as the Conclave tries to incorporate the Earth in some way (and, as a result, sever its ties to the Colonial Union). Complicating matters, Conclave member worlds have begun receiving the Ocampo report, released by the shadowy Equilibrium group, with the aim of setting the Conclave and Colonial Union upon one another. Sensing a war that can have no winners, the Colonial Union dispatches Ambassador Abumwe comes to personally deliver a rebuttal—setting the stage for a political crisis.

“This Hollow Union” is, in essence, about parliamentary politics—or rather, the stuff that happens backstage in a parliamentary system. Sorvalh spends most of her time setting and springing political traps for the general’s opponents, while stepping gingerly around the traps they set in turn. In theory I’m not happy devoting this much real estate to the internal power relations of the Conclave, but Scalzi’s enthusiasm for Sorvalh, who he has described as one of his favorite characters to write, gives the episode a strong forward momentum.

Structurally the episode follows the model established in “The Life of the Mind,” which is to say lots of talking punctuated by a small number of action scenes. But the dialogue is sharp, and the action scenes genuinely surprising. Moreover, as the narrative unfolded, I found my reservations about the perspective shift dwindle away. The plot moves forward in important ways, and we do get a hefty dose of Abumwe (as well as Earth representative and Harry Wilson love interest Danielle Lowen). Plus, in addition to Sorvalh, Scalzi gives ample “airtime” to the cranky, scene-stealing Conclave intelligence chief Oi, who I hope to see more of as the narrative progresses.

Other elements of the episode, however, left me scratching my head. I noted last week how the Colonial Union and Earth are, in essence, the “United Space of America”—I trope I find works well in the subversive context of the original Old Man’s War trilogy, but which feels unrealistic and mildly distracting in the more straightforward adventuring context of the current series. The framing of the Conclave as a sort of space parliament, by contrast, is just…weird. These are aliens, after all—lots of different kinds of aliens. I find it hard to imagine them utilizing a political system that’s nearly identical to what you find in most industrialized earth states of the present day. Sure you do find that elsewhere—Star Wars comes to mind. But Star Wars is space fantasy aimed primarily at kids. (And that’s spoken as an unapologetic, lifelong Star Wars fan.) I would have preferred if the Conclave felt more alien, and in fact the one scene where Scalzi does explore alien-ness in some detail is easily the best in the whole episode.

In short, “This Hollow Union” serves as a very good follow-up to “The Life of the Mind.” It’s a quick, breezy read with strong characters and just enough action to keep readers on their toes. Once again, I find myself hoping that we’ll refocus perspective on Wilson and Abumwe in the next episode, but I’m more open-minded to alternatives than I was last week. After all, this one worked surprisingly well.

Verdict: thumbs are still up.

This Hollow Union is available now from Tor Books.
Read excerpts from The End of All Things, beginning with The Life of the Mind, 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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