Over a decade ago, Tor gave away a free copy of Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Little did they know how profitable that free PDF was going to be for them, over the years. I still have it, even though I have purchased copies of Old Man’s War multiple times since, and only half the reason is because I’m a digital hoarder. Yes, that’s right: I have nostalgia for a PDF file.
Old Man’s War was my first book by John Scalzi, and it would be my gateway back into science fiction and fantasy after years and years skimming along the surface, apathetic about my reading choices and not finding the type of science fiction in literary form that I loved so much in visual mediums. I’m probably not Scalzi’s biggest fan (or AM I?), but I am at least up there in the Hall of Fame with the other people who have handwritten him letters and then mailed them to friends across the country to deliver at book events I couldn’t attend.
I have tons of favorite authors, but there’s something special about finding that first author in whatever your favorite genre is that can tell a story that makes you go, “I want more of this immediately.” After reading Old Man’s War, I devoured all the work by Scalzi that I could afford to buy and then started waiting for him to publish more. He’s been a reliable source of entertainment for years—even years when he doesn’t publish new books, because he writes books that are very re-readable. Let’s not talk about how many times I’ve read The Android’s Dream and how desperately I want another book in that universe. (Unless your name is John Scalzi and you want to tell me all about your plans for the next book. Then we can talk.)
That said, I also think that Scalzi is a complicated person and author who, as he’s grown as a storyteller, has done a lot of experimenting in his fiction that might be opaque or extremely subtle to the eyes of new readers. Because I am an Extreme Scalzi Fan, I’m 100% biased about wanting people to start in certain places, learn his style as an author, and then move on to other, more experimental books. This is self-serving: I want to maximize the number of people I can convert into ways of the Scalziverse.
Wondering where to start? Well, here is a guide to some of John Scalzi’s back catalogue, by me, an Extreme Scalzi Fan:
101: Beginner Scalzi
If you’re brand-new to Scalzi’s work, there a few possible starting places. If you want a comedic space opera adventure, you’ll want to start with Old Man’s War and its companion and sequel novels, The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony. If you’re in the mood for straight up comedy SF, then Agent to the Stars is your entry point. And if you want some comedy but also kind of want to watch a political thriller in your underwear while eating snack food and don’t know what book could possibly meet all those qualifications at once, there’s The Android’s Dream, which is the funniest/darkest book about sheep I’ve ever read.
And although it’s not quite out yet, I would 100% put The Collapsing Empire here as a great gateway book, especially if you like foul-mouthed women and hipster-ish scientists saving humanity from interstellar calamity. I would call The Collapsing Empire Scalzi’s political space thriller. It’s more drama than comedy, which sets it apart from Old Man’s War, but let’s be real: it’s Scalzi, and he’s a funny guy who writes great character banter. You’re gonna laugh.
102: Intermediate Scalzi
Here, I’d place the continuations to the Old Man’s War series. If you want to read a novel that revisits that world and characters, but doesn’t start a completely new series with new characters, pick up Zoe’s Tale, which retells the story in The Last Colony from an entirely different perspective. Zoe’s Tale is also one of the novels I would put in Scalzi’s experimental category, where he starts to really grow as an author. The main criticism I’ve seen this novel get generally implies that teenager girls just aren’t this clever. My clapback to that is that you must not know that many teenage girls, and also, you’re wrong. Of all the adult novels featuring young women that I read during the late 2000s, this continues to be one of my favorites.
If you want to stay in the Old Man’s War universe but are hungry for additional adventures that are brand-new, The Human Division and its follow-up, The End of All Things, are your next stop. They get bonus points for being chopped into easily digestible chapters, so if you want something that you can read in bits—something you can put down and easily come back to—these books are it. They were released serially, similar to TV episodes, and they work great in that format, too. But I also think they have more emotional impact when grounded in knowledge of the original series, so my preference is to recommend them after people have read (and hopefully liked—no pressure!) Old Man’s War.
103: Advanced Scalzi
This heading is, admittedly, misleading; I don’t think these titles are inaccessible for new readers at all, and in many cases could be great entry points which would leave the books massively re-readable later on. But I do believe that these books are more experimental and that readers will benefit from being familiar with Scalzi’s style and the politics of his work (which will become clear if you read entries in the 101 and 102 categories first). It’s safe to say that depending on how deeply you read into his books, technically these titles would also work just fine in the 101 section. Since I am a big fan of deep dives into literature, though, I enjoy these books for their subtlety, their undertones, and sometimes, their sneakiness, which I think becomes easier to see and appreciate when you’re more familiar with Scalzi’s narrative habits.
Redshirts is first on this list, and operates best if you have a working knowledge of Star Trek and/or any number of later, badly-written, SFF-related TV series (like, if you wasted years of your life watching Supernatural, for instance, only to be betrayed…not that I’m bitter). It works on a storytelling level if you have that background as a fan, but there are a lot of interesting undertones to the story that you’ll be able to catch if you’ve read Scalzi’s other work first.
Lock In is a fascinating book, and (without getting into spoiler territory) there’s an interesting facet of the novel that might not be immediately noticeable unless you read with a particular mindset—or if your first encounter with the story is via the audiobook. It’s a futuristic political thriller, but it’s also a narrative about disability. Plus, it challenges reader assumptions. So while I know this would work well in the 101 section based on its story alone, I again think that going into it with a firm understanding of Scalzi’s previous work enriches the reading of Lock In.
Fuzzy Nation is to H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy as the Star Trek reboots are to the original Star Trek. It’s a book that could go in the Advanced Scalzi section, but it’s also so much its own thing that it feels sort of weird to lump it into any specific category. It’s a science fiction adventure novel that builds on long-existing characters and worldbuilding by another author, so really, Fuzzy Nation can be read at any point for a solid introduction to Scalzi’s narrative style.
Obviously, this list doesn’t even cover most of John Scalzi’s work; he’s done audio-first work with The Dispatcher, he’s published a lot of extra content to existing series, plenty of nonfiction, as well as standalone work with Subterranean Press, such as his recently released Miniatures. His back catalogue is expansive and rich, and if you like science fiction, there’s a good chance he’s done something you might like if you enjoy anything from the selections above.
Of course, my arbitrary classifications are mine alone—they’re how I approach the process of introducing Scalzi’s work to my friends and acquaintances (calibrated to achieve Maximum Conversion, always!). You may have a different approach—what was the first book by Scalzi you read? Would you start by recommending that book to someone new to Scalzi or SF, or would you go with a different one? Let us know your suggested reading order for Scalzi’s ever-growing body of work!
Renay Williams stumbled into online fandom, fanfiction, and media criticism via Sailor Moon in 1994. Since then, she’s become an editor at Lady Business and a co-host of Fangirl Happy Hour. She can be found having emotions over the lives of fictional characters on Twitter @renay.