I don’t entirely remember when I started reading John Scalzi. I do remember hearing about him and searching (in vain) for Old Man’s War at Half-Price Books, but my first experience was probably sometime around when The Last Colony was published.
My first experience wasn’t particularly a watershed moment as a science fiction reader. I enjoyed Old Man’s War enough to add Scalzi to my list of regulars to follow, but the book fell into a comfortable zone of military SF without blowing my mind. And it seemed Scalzi wished to remain in that comfort zone for some time, probably intelligently, since it allowed him to grow his fan base very well over the subsequent years.
However, don’t let it be said that Scalzi is one to rest on his laurels. Starting with Zoe’s Tale, he’s fairly consistently tried new things with each subsequent novel, pushing boundaries, even if his work is mostly mainstream in the SF sphere.
While The End of All Things isn’t his most groundbreaking work (that honor goes to last year’s Lock In), it is a pretty big stretch in a few ways for the Old Man’s War universe. It follows on the rough format established in The Human Division, as a collection of shorter stories (four novellas, in this case) that combine to a greater whole. However, he’s cast the net far wider this time around. The Human Division mostly remains focused on the same group of characters (Harry Wilson, Hart Schmidt, and company) established in The B Team story. In contrast, The End of All Things relegates them to secondary characters for the first half of the book, instead establishing new viewpoints to bring the story forward from The Human Division’s climactic, cliffhanger ending.
And it works. Scalzi has a gift for character voice, so we inhabit these characters so well that we can’t help but to like them. In The Life of the Mind, Rafe Daquin addresses one of the bigger plot hooks from The Human Division in an engaging manner, providing a fun viewpoint for a truly terrifying situation. This Hollow Union brings back one of Scalzi’s most enjoyable protagonists, Hafte Sorvalh, first introduced in a cute short story, but showcasing invigorating political acumen here.
The latter half of the book does bring back more familiar characters. Heather Lee, who served as protagonist in one of The Human Division’s stories returns for Can Long Endure, an almost slice-of-life look at the changes to the Colonial Union’s foot soldiers’ lives. Then Harry Wilson returns to take the finale home in To Stand or Fall.
I had some hope that Perry and his family would return for a cameo, but that was wishful thinking. Perhaps he will make an appearance if Scalzi gets the itch to revisit the universe yet again. Or perhaps we’ll be treated to a whole new cast of characters. Scalzi is very good about establishing them after all.
If there’s a complaint about the book, it’s probably with regards to the big bad, so to speak. The Human Division worked wonders for building up a new threat against the Colonial Union, the Conclave, and Earth. While that made for an excellent cliffhanger (and two years of waiting), I can’t help but feel that that the ultimate reveal and identity of the threat is a bit anticlimactic. If you’re going to use a mystery, particularly one that spans volumes, make sure it’s a great one. The mystery here is good and serviceable, but never made me go “whoa!”
Still, that’s a minor gripe compared to the novel as a whole. As he usually does, Scalzi has crafted a tale that’s engaging to the point that I found it difficult to put down long enough to take care of necessary things. A good book should leave you craving for more, and that’s definitely the case here.
It’s a tossup which of the four novellas I enjoyed the most, but I think it says a lot that I’d like to see more of Hafte Sorvalh in the future, and I’m very curious to find out what Heather Lee ends up doing with her new life, even if it’s only shown as a short story. It’s possible that I just prefer a female protagonist, however, so don’t read a whole lot into this. All four of the novellas work.
While I hope it isn’t truly the end of all things for the Old Man’s War universe, The End of All Things is a satisfying conclusion for now, bringing and emotional end and a new status quo.4/5