Return to the Source: The End of All Things by John Scalzi, Episode 3: “Can Long Endure”

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. Two weeks ago, I covered “The Life of the Mind,”and last week, I reviewed “This Hollow Union.” This week I am reading Episode 3: “Can Long Endure.”

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

Okay.

This review is going to follow a somewhat different format from the past two, because, well, the episode isn’t like the other two. In fact I can’t really recap it for you without spoiling at least one action scene, and that would do you disservice. So here’s the deal: “Can Long Endure” follows the exploits of a Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) special operations fire team, led by Lieutenant Heather Lee, as they perform a series of covert missions aimed at keeping the Union together. At first it seems disjointed from, or at least tangential to, the previous episodes, but halfway through we begin to see that this is not the case.

“Can Long Endure” is, on the surface, nuts-and-bolts milSF, of the kind I haven’t seen from Scalzi since The Ghost Brigades. Frenetic combat scenes, esprit de corps, fog of war, soldiers who shoot the shit like soldiers—you name it, it’s here. At first this seemed like a departure, but then it became clear that the shift in focus serves a very specific purpose, which is to show the Colonial Union for what it is—an essentially exploitative and oppressive institution, which rules through fear (however legitimate) of alien species, and which brooks no independence or autonomy from its subject worlds.

At the same time, while we are witness to the maltreatment of the colonies by their erstwhile protector, we never doubt that, without the Colonial Union’s military muscle, humanity would be in grave danger. Sure, the Colonial Union’s aggressive militarism has made and attracted enemies. But we do not doubt that, were the Colonial Union to collapse, many of these human-settled colonies would become easy prey. We are thus presented with a moral quandary without an easy answer: is the Colonial Union in fact worth saving?

The soldiers themselves are decidedly ambivalent on this score, as the following exchange between Sgt. Powell and Lt. Lee attests:

“The Colonial Union’s a fascistic shit show, boss. I knew that much from the first day I set foot on one of their boats to get away from Earth. Are you kidding? They control trade. They control communications. they don’t let the colonies protect themselves and they don’t let them do anything that doesn’t go through the Colonial Union itself. And let’s not forget everything they’ve done to Earth. They’ve been doing it for centuries. Shit, Lieutenant. I’m not surprised we have a civil war on our hands right now. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”

“And yet here we are,” I said. “You and me, in their uniform.”

“We didn’t want to die old,” Powell said.

Therein lies an explanation as to why the Colonial Union recruits primarily old Earthlings to be transformed into green-skin super soldiers, and why it is hesitant to simply ask the colonies to pick up the slack. In short, the old Earthlings have nothing to lose, and have exactly zero loyalty to the individual colonies—thus freeing the Colonial Union up to be as  heavy-handed as it deems necessary.

Yet, between the lines, there is a subtext worth noting. Though the CDF did not recruit exclusively in the United States, the CDF is clearly dominated by Americans. The colonies, by contrast, are populated primarily by immigrants or the descendents of immigrants from the developing (or, at least, the non-Western) world. The political dynamic in this episode is thus one of American soldiers sent by a remote and removed political authority to carry out military assignments they don’t necessarily see value in, and which will likely result in deep resentment for the political entity they represent. Sound familiar? Scalzi doesn’t hit you over the head with the analogy, if it is even intended as such, but the more I think about it, the clearer it seems. It’s there to be found if you go looking for it.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a welcome shift toward the political. I’ve previously questioned whether this new series would engage in the kind of political subversion that helped the original Old Man’s War series rise above its Heinleinian source material. Now it seems we have our answer—an extrapolation of the central political themes explored in the original series. However, this particular extrapolation colors things in to a significant degree. So I’m fine with that. More than fine, actually.

On the other hand, while “Can Long Endure” is for my money the strongest of the three episodes I’ve read, it remains to be seen how well it services the overall narrative. The absence of Wilson, Abumwe and the Chandler remains difficult to explain. As is they have consistently managed to show up at the last minute and save the day, albeit in relatively uneventful fashion. There are costs there because while plot drives story, it’s character and character development that make stories special. And I just don’t feel as attached to anyone as I did to Wilson, Schmidt, Lowen and Abumwe in The Human Division. We’ll see how, or if, that problem resolves.

In the meantime, however, I’m quite pleased with “Can Long Endure,” which has reminded me of how special these books are.

Can Long Endure is available now from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt from the novella here on Tor.com, or start with Episode 1: The Life of the Mind.
The End of All Things publishes August 11th.

 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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