This essay, on The Last Colony, is the third installment in an on-going retrospective of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. Previous installments have covered Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades. The latest volume in the series, The End of All Things, is currently available from Tor Books.
You may recall me rather presumptuously suggesting that The Ghost Brigades was likely to remain my favorite entry in this series when all was said and done. Oh what a difference a week makes!
Now, don’t take that for a knock on The Ghost Brigades. I mean, that book is great for all the reasons I laid out for you. It’s just that The Last Colony does an exquisite job of bringing the whole story together, is a wonderful story in its own right and even tackles some of the lingering issues I’ve identified in previous entries. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
As the book begins, we find John Perry and Jane Sagan retired from the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) and living comfortably on Huckleberry, where they are married, work (respectively) as ombudsman and constable for a small farming community and are raising Zoe Boutin as their adopted daughter. That is, until General Rybicki of the CDF approaches them with a proposal—lead a new colony that, rather than draw its colonists from the developing societies of Earth, will be made up of volunteers from the Colonial Union’s core worlds. After some soul-searching, they accept, and prepare for the journey to the new world, curiously named Roanoke, which they have been told is a gift from the Obin in exchange for the Colonial Union finishing Charles Boutin’s work and gifting the species with consciousness implants.
Only once they arrive, they realize that nothing is as it seems. Turns out, the colony is a ploy in a complex power play pitting the Colonial Union against the Conclave—a massive alliance of species determined to regulate and manage the galaxy’s endless wars over territory. And it is not at all clear how Roanoke will survive the fallout.
WARNING: spoilers after this point.
In Old Man’s War, Scalzi presents a kill-or-be-killed universe, in which humanity is one of many species putting the boot to whoever or whatever gets in the way. Perry drinks the Kool-Aid, then starts to wonder whether “defense” is really an appropriate way to describe the Colonial Union’s modus operandi. In The Ghost Brigades, the Special Forces break up a multispecies plot to carve up the Colonial Union—committing horrible atrocities in the process. By the end, Sagan becomes aware of the Conclave and the Colonial Union’s determination to see it fail (since multilateralism and militaristic exceptionalism don’t exactly go hand-in-hand).
In both books, Scalzi invites us to sympathize with humanity, and provides ample evidence in support of the Colonial Union’s narrative—that the kill-or-be-killed nature of interspecies relations necessitates a muscular foreign policy. However, Scalzi also seeds a counter-narrative that invites us to wonder—like Perry and Sagan—whether the Colonial Union might actually shoulder a degree of blame for this situation.
In The Last Colony, those dual narratives resolve. The universe may have been ruled by kill-or-be-killed, and humanity may have been legitimately threatened at many points in time. But given the chance to do things differently, to put all that aside and work toward a more cooperative paradigm, in which the galaxy’s various species share rather than take from one another, the Colonial Union instead attempts to destroy the agent of change. Simply put, the Colonial Union has no interest in peace. Rather, it sees in the Conclave only an impediment to its expansionary ambitions. And so it does the only thing it really knows how to do: attack, by force if necessary, by subterfuge if possible.
Roanoke, Perry and Sagan come to learn, is bait. The Colonial Union first hides the colony by outfitting it only with equipment that doesn’t rely on wireless communication. The colonists struggle to survive with 20th Century farming gear, and in fact are only able to do so because the colonists include a contingent of Mennonites. Then the Colonial Union broadcasts Roanoke’s location, hoping to draw the Conclave into an ambush. But the ambush, though successful, does not provoke the desired chain reaction within the Conclave. Other species, it seems, are much more interested in peace and cooperation than humanity.
The gambit does, however, provoke a number of species (both within and outside the Conclave) to take matters into their own hands. Humanity has not exactly endeared itself to the rest of the galaxy, and this is pretty much the final straw. And once again the Colonial Union hopes to use the Roanake colony—this time as a martyr, a sacrifice to the Conclave that could, in death, galvanize nationalist sentiments throughout the colony worlds and justify mass conscription for the coming war.
Unsurprisingly, neither Perry nor Sagan are on board with this plan, and through their actions set into motion a series of events that challenge the Colonial Union’s hegemony—its reflexive recourse to secrecy, its violence and its fundamentally undemocratic methods of governance.
Rather than glorifying violence, promoting jingoism or pushing a dogmatic political viewpoint—as the critics of Old Man’s War had it—Scalzi is offering a warning and a critique of the right-wing policies that have seen America embroiled in unwinnable wars. Violence is terrible and it is ultimately self-defeating, because in the absence of trust and in a universe where every side immediately chooses bloodshed over cooperation, every battle is merely the prelude to another war. Violence is corrupting, leading to a downward spiral into perpetual fear, increasing paranoia and growing brutality.
Yet, as dark as it can be, the series is also quite hopeful—optimistic even. Institutions are corrupting and policies corrupt, but individuals—even those deeply enmeshed in those institutions and beholden to those policies—can be fundamentally good. In same cases, they may even become agents of change. And not just Perry and Sagan at that, but also Generals Rybicki and Szilard, who each in their own way, and for their own reasons, support Perry and Sagan’s confrontation with the leviathan.
Even more so General Tarsem Gau, the leader of the Conclave. As he tries to convince the leader of a Whaidi colony to abandon an unauthorized colony (before it is destroyed by the Conclave fleet), he recalls the moment he came to understand the futility of war. The epiphany came, Gau explains, just after a military operation to remove a water-dwelling species from a planet targeted for colonization by his people:
There was no rational reason we couldn’t have shared the planet. But we wouldn’t. They wouldn’t. And both of us lost more than we could have won. Before that battle, I was as xenophobic as your damned ataFuey [the Whaidi ruler], and as much as you’re pretending to be now. After it, I was ashamed how we poisoned that planet when we took it back. Ashamed, Chan. And I knew that it would never end. Unless I made it end. Unless I made things change.
Later, in a conversation with Perry, Gau expounds upon the view that war, despite any short-term benefits it may provide, is ultimately self-defeating:
Look at our civilizations…we’re all the same size because we limit each other through war. We’re all at the same level of technology, because we bargain, trade and steal from each other. We all inhabit the same area of space because that is where we began, and we choose to control our colonies rather than let them develop without us. We fight over the same planets and only occasionally explore to find new ones, which we all then squabble over like carrion animals fighting over a carcass. Our civilizations are at an equilibrium, Administrator Perry. An artificial equilibrium that is sliding all of us toward entropy.
Our civilizations operate as a system, and our limiting factor is war. Remove that factor and the system thrives. We can focus on cooperation. We can explore rather than fight. If there had been a Conclave, perhaps we would have met you before you came out and met us. Perhaps we’ll explore now and find new races.
Chew on that for a minute, and then think about the big questions of American foreign policy that were contemporaneous with the book’s publication: unilateralism versus multilateralism, and the pre-emptive use of military force versus the use of military force as a last resort. And then think about how these passages, and the novel’s resolution, fit into that dynamic.
Ultimately, however, Scalzi is not just interested in problematizing or subverting the militaristic assumptions of the military SF subgenre, of Starship Troopers specifically, or even those presented in Old Man’s War. Rather, he is presenting an alternative—a very idealistic, Star Trek-like alternative, as it happens. And not just in the realm of foreign relations. Rather, Perry and Sagan’s project is one of openness versus secrecy, and of civic engagement as a counterweight to bureaucratic tyranny, every bit as much as it is one of cooperation versus confrontation, and of common versus narrow interest.
I’ll readily admit that I find this message immensely appealing. But if that’s all there was to the book, I probably wouldn’t have liked it very much. After all, message-driven fiction (i.e. fiction where the message is delivered at the cost of everything else) isn’t something I care for—even when I do agree with the message.
So it helps that The Last Colony, like its predecessors, is a damn fine story. What initially hinges on a classic survival-of-the-colony trope seamlessly evolves into the broader political narrative outlined above. Before we start caring about what happens to the galaxy, that is, we come to care about Roanoke and its colonists.
And the colony is full of likeable characters. Perry and Sagan we’ve known since the beginning of the series, but each gets significant character development in The Last Colony. Adopted daughter Zoe is also well-rendered and believable, though in this volume, at least, she acts more as a delivery mechanism for the colony’s alliance with the Obin—who revere her as the daughter of Charles Boutin, and who have sent two specialized operatives, named Hickory and Dickory by Zoe, to record her emotional experiences and watch over her.* Hickory and Dickory, moreover, are often scene stealing. (Zoe is the subject of the follow-up, Zoe’s Tale, which I will review next week.)
I also appreciated the fact that humanity’s future finally doesn’t seem so monolithically American. Roanoke’s colonists come from a variety of ethnic and national backgrounds, and we are finally given a reasonable explanation for why the CDF is so red, white and blue—the CDF is open to recruits from across the developed world, but as General Szilard tells Perry, the bulk of volunteers have always come from the U.S. There’s no explanation for why that might be, allowing you to draw your own conclusions.
Me? I don’t really buy it, as if the Colonial Union really were in a constant state of war, with the casualty rate suggested in Old Man’s War, they’d need as many recruits as they could get, and probably wouldn’t care much about their national origin. Meanwhile, it’s hard to see why citizens from one specific country would be that more likely to take the CDF’s deal. But at least the explanation is more satisfying than what we got in the previous novels. Plus I do understand what giving the CDF a distinctly American character allows Scalzi to do—to set up the subversion of Starship Troopers that comes to a head in this novel and to invite a largely U.S.-based readership to view the events of the series as allegory. So take that criticism with a grain of salt.
In the end, though, these are relatively minor issues. The Last Colony, for my money, serves as a triumphant conclusion to an engaging, smart and immensely enjoyable trilogy.
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.