A Fresh Perspective: Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

This essay, on Zoe’s Tale, is the fourth installment in an on-going retrospective of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. Previous installments have covered Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony. The latest volume in the series, The End of All Things, is currently available from Tor Books.

Zoe’s Tale is a unique entry in the series, in the sense that it isn’t so much an original story as a a retelling of The Last Colony from the perspective of Zoe Boutin-Perry. Zoe, as you may recall, is the biological daughter of the traitor and scientist Charles Boutin, who offered the Obin consciousness in exchange for a war to destroy the Colonial Union. With Boutin’s death, Zoe became the adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan.

She also became a goddess-like figure to the Obin, who the Colonial Union have now gifted with the fruits of Boutin’s research in exchange for a treaty of peace and mutual assistance. As such, the Obin insisted that the treaty include access to Zoe. The Colonial Union acquiesced, agreeing that two Obin could record Zoe’s life and experiences (as well as guard her person). These recordings would then be shared with the rest of their species, who may have gained consciousness, but have had no experience of consciousness. Zoe’s Tale thus not only retells the story of The Last Colony, but explores the struggles of a teenage girl coming to terms with being a something in addition to a someone.

Warning: spoilers after this point.

Zoe’s Tale, I think it’s fair to say, tries to speak to both seasoned and new readers of the series. I came into this reread having just reread The Last Colony, so I was much more attuned to the former experience than the latter. In fact I’m not really sure how Zoe’s Tale would read to a series newbie, though I did note the summaries of off-stage events from The Last Colony function as a way to make the book accessible to said newbies. But I’m not really sure how well the book works as a standalone. (Feel free to let me know in the comments, if you happened to read this one before any of the others.)

As an addendum or appendix to the trilogy proper, however, Zoe’s Tale does a good job filling in the gaps and contextualizing the events of The Last Colony. Zoe’s trip to solicit aid for Roanoke from General Gau and the colony’s brief encounter with the indigenous “werewolf” creatures of Roanoke are the most notable examples. The latter was particularly gratifying for me, as I remained curious about human/werewolf relations on Roanoke at the end of The Last Colony.

That said, though these vignettes do constitute a major attraction for series fans, the book’s primary concern is to illustrate Zoe’s experience of the events told in The Last Colony, while linking those events to a personal narrative of teenage romance, friendship, and coming to terms with being a symbol as well as a person.

Like previous entries, Zoe’s Tale is written in an easygoing, casual style that lends itself to binge-reading. This is a book you can finish in a weekend, at the beach, or on a long plane ride. But, like all of Scalzi’s novels, it isn’t simply a page-turner. There are some very serious discussions about family, identity, consciousness, and the ethics of inter-species relations. These are, generally speaking, quite interesting.

Unfortunately, the teenage romance angle didn’t work as well for me. It’s not that I’m averse to teenage romance as a literary theme (I’m not). Rather, I just found Zoe and Enzo a bit too self-aware and confident for my tastes. My experience of being a teenager suggests more chaos, uncertainty, and self-doubt than I felt in either character; in short, a more manic experience—one where dizzying, euphoric highs punctuate a near-constant threat of humiliation. I would have liked more of that.

By contrast, I was much happier with the narrative of Zoe’s personal growth from an adventurous and smart but often confused young woman to a true leader (of humans and Obin). This personal growth emerges from attempts to grapple with deep and meaningful questions. “Who am I?” Zoe asks:

Who are my people? Who do I belong to? Questions with easy answers and no answers. I belong to my family and to the Obin and sometimes to no one at all. I am a daughter and goddess and girl who sometimes just doesn’t know who she is or what she wants. My brain rattles around my head with this stuff and gives me a headache. I wish I were alone here. I’m glad John’s with me. I want to see my new friend Gretchen and make sarcastic comments until we burst out laughing. I want to go to my stateroom on the Magellan, turn off the light, hug my dog, and cry. I want to leave this stupid cemetery. I don’t ever want to leave it because I know I’m never coming back to it. This is my last time with my people, the ones who are already gone. Sometimes I don’t know if my life is complicated, or if it’s that I just think too much about things.

As the narrative unfolds, Zoe finds some answers—as we all do—in her experiences of trauma and redemption, and in her personal relationships. Elsewhere, she finds more questions, but also develops the tools with which to explore them.

My favorite scenes in Zoe’s Tale explore Zoe’s personal, evolving relationship with the two Obin, Hickory and Dickory. At times she feels oppressed by their ever-presence, by the weight of expectations put on her as a result of her unique status among Obin and their parental-plus attitude toward her safety (which would grate on any teenager, I’d imagine). But as the book proceeds, we come to understand the depth and breadth of their personal bond, and of the familial bond that emerges from their shared experiences and mutual affection. I found this quite moving.

All in all, Zoe’s Tale mostly accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to say it does provide a fresh, entertaining and thought-provoking new perspective on the events of The Last Colony. It is not, however, my favorite entry in the series. Perhaps this is because a retelling by nature contains fewer surprises—though, equally, it may just be a case of one book aligning less with my personal interests than another. Regardless, Zoe’s Tale is a must-read for series fans, and an enjoyable one at that.

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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