The science-fiction author John Scalzi is currently highly regarded and popular within the science-fiction community, and, from reading his novel The Last Colony I can see why. I did not particularly rate The Last Colony myself, for reasons I will try to set out in this review, but at the same time it is by no means a bad book and as a piece of science-fiction I would not hesitate to recommend it to a fan of the genre. Scalzi is a science-fiction writer for science-fiction fans, if this novel is anything to go by; literate within the genre, aware of the pitfalls of writing science-fiction and generally able to avoid them, he writes with an enthusiastic and quite readable prose style that feels like a modern equivalent to the brisk, at times methodical prose of science-fiction greats. The Last Colony is, perhaps, as a result the epitome of the science-fiction novel – and yet as a result hard to recommend to anyone other than diehard fans looking for more solid, unremarkable science-fiction.
The question of what science-fiction should be recommended to non-fans is a difficult and much debated one. Science-fiction fandom has historically been perceived as insular, interested primarily in books which presuppose some knowledge of what the reader is getting into and – despite continued efforts to be more welcoming (which, happily, are bearing fruit) – always skirting the edge of cliquishness. This is not particularly the place to argue the legitimacy of science-fiction as a form, genre or topos, and it is definitely not the place to try and define some essential list of science-fiction to “convince” someone that it is good. This is a place to discuss The Last Colony and to do this I feel it necessary to explain why I simultaneously did not particularly enjoy it and yet would recommend it readily to other science-fiction fans. Some years ago I read a lot more science-fiction than I do now, and I think if I were still the reader I was then – someone always looking for new science-fiction experiences – I would have enjoyed The Last Colony a lot more. Nowadays I read a lot less science-fiction (although still quite a bit of it, and still enjoy the genre in other media such as animation) and have different expectations from what I read – expectations that The Last Colony did not really meet. I would recommend it without hesitation to people that read within the genre as intently as I did years ago, and yet not recommend it to people who read within the genre as I do now.
The novel has a relatively straightforward plot detailing humanity’s efforts to fight a powerful political alliance of alien races using one planet as its figurehead and battleground. I discovered after reading it that it is third in a series of (currently) five, and yet do not feel that it presupposed or necessitated knowledge of its world or characters; on the other hand its ending is put into a slightly different context knowing that there is some form of continuation. I did wonder, on learning this, if it was even fair to continue reviewing the novel in this vein – would reading it out of context have significantly changed my reading of it, and indeed would my criticisms of it be undone by having greater knowledge of the series? Yet the fact I was able to pick the book off a library shelf, not knowing very much about Scalzi, the novel itself or its being part of a series (for the novel’s cover description and internals never made the fact it was part of a series particularly clear in the edition I read), and read and understand its concepts well means it is an example of a series-novel that stands alone in some aspect. If anything, this discovery made me more favourable to Scalzi as a writer; that he could write a novel ostensibly third in a series and make it entirely understandable and easy to read for someone who had not read any of the others is a very impressive feat in a genre that at times loves its continuity. Furthermore, I feel reading more stories featuring the novel’s cast and universe would not, necessarily, change my views of what The Last Colony itself lacked.
The plot, as mentioned above, is comparatively clear and straightforward; its conspiracies are often revealed not long after their existence is made known, it relies on the common – and hard to pull off – conceit of master-plans not quite revealed accurately to the reader (a conceit I have a fondness for, given it is almost the entire narrative motor behind Giant Robo), the conspiracies themselves tend to be quite straightforward ones which can be resolved through setpieces and speeches and its ending is not exactly a twist but a slightly unexpected interpretation of character-traits made very plain throughout. The novel’s protagonist, John Perry, is presented as someone who is a good model of a space hero – selfless, mediatory, a family man, and loyal to morals over governments. As a result as he constantly tries to ensure the greater good prevails (at the end even rejecting his government for he feels they oppose this position), and so the reaction to the conspiracy is less the fearless ruggedly individualistic iconoclast but more the Ideal Politician, the man who really does care for his people. It is a novel about colonisation, after all; Perry is assigned to govern human settlers on an inhospitable planet as a test of mankind’s resolve against an alien force intent on curtailing human expansion, and has to both try and preserve his colony’s safety and accept his role as a front-line soldier (of sorts) in a war he has only limited power over. Thus the novel presents an affable, broadly admirable hero whose moral conflicts are interesting in a quite ordinary way – loyalty to government as an ideal versus loyalty to actual people, efforts to survive hardship and mediate conflicting ideologies, and the crises of loyalty to family over community. He is written in such a way that the choices he makes – given the way the options he has are presented – generally seem difficult enough to make him pause for thought, but are nevertheless the “right” choices. Even at the end, as he orchestrates a move that might destabilise humanity’s holdings in space, the reader is 100% with him because he is so affable a hero.
This is precisely what I did not enjoy about the novel. The quandaries and crises Perry faced never felt particularly thought-provoking because he was such an agreeable everyman hero; for someone who, in the first chapter, describes a career of military service, cultural displacement and identity problems, who is tasked with maintaining a colony on a hostile world while hiding from evil aliens, he seemed very easy to relate with. That the novel never really made me question my politics as Perry played and was played by galactic empires implies it aligned very strongly with them in these areas. He made the choices I would like to think I would make, the ones which try and ensure as few people die as possible and which are as conciliatory as possible. A hero who is such a model of integrity, whose regret at having to lie to people to keep them safe (yet whose lies are always justified and win out in the end) feels too comfortable for science-fiction, a genre which can provoke political thought and explore strange dilemmas. Perry is simply too good at his job, too archetypally ideal a leader, to really be a challenging or exciting character – yet at the same time that he is the antithesis of the jingoistic space marine (despite his roots as one), that he is a conciliatory, tolerant man in a cosmopolitan, multicultural future who does his best to stamp out racism means he is a pleasant hero to read about. The Last Colony is a safe, nice book in many respects; it says good things.
It is perhaps my cynicism which means simply saying nice things – presenting a hero who embodies generally good traits and does his best – is not enough to grab my interest. I know when I read more science-fiction I would have loved this book because Perry is an amiably liberal voice, and I know that the novel’s pleasing messages are why I would not hesitate to recommend it to the right audience. Yet I do not think this is enough to make the novel stand out for me. It feels a little soft-soap, in some ways; criticism of colonisation as a concept that would have been an interesting counterpoint to Perry’s generally amiable attitude to it is undercooked to the extreme. The planet he colonises is populated by an indiginous species who provide enough peril to destabilise the culture and then fade into the background as a threat, and the warlike desire for genocide they evoke from the vengeful colonists is evaporated in a simple reminder that war is not winnable. A potential conspiracy about the “trading” of worlds between empires, and the cultural and political implications of this – coming after an entertaining monologue about the transiency of space colonies – is quickly disproved by the larger conspiracy, and yet is the seed of an interesting discussion of the morality of empire-building. The novel rather goes out of its way to suggest expansionism is vital and natural and can be done as kindly as possible – and never really does enough to challenge this view. It is a backdrop which provides Perry with more chances to shine. Comparing this to how The Legend of the Galactic Heroes does wonder about imperialism, totalitarianism and democracy – does devote story arcs to the difficulties of colonisation and repatriation – and even has a staunch democract come to realise totalitarianism is the quickest way to undo the damage a past tyrant has inflicted makes Scalzi’s novel seem to shy away from what could have been an interesting question. The Conclave, the anti-colonisation league who are the enemy for most of the book, are painted, it feels, as people who simply want to stop good people from colonising so bad people can. Even the revelations that the human empire are rotten and need to be shaken up before they destroy themselves have little weight because before long Perry has a plan to fix this. It does not have the gravity of Galactic Heroes’ slow and awful revelations about how degraded the Free Planets Alliance government is; the Colonial Union of The Last Colony are badly governed, want a war, but are politically outplayed. A future book might explore what this means, but the impression is that is was generally a good thing to have done.
The problem, thus, is the book is too breezy and insubstantial. It entertains some complex ideas in thin fashion, making them seem a little inconsequential, and dwells a lot on a protagonist who may not be infallible or free from consequence, but whose choices always end up seeming the right ones. These are things, perhaps, a reader expecting them would be fine with. I know when I read more widely within science-fiction I had no problem with this kind of confident, capable hero who sorted things out. I would have liked Perry as a character a lot because he was a liberal, assertive person who fought corruption. Nowadays, as I have read more widely and encountered a lot more media, a book that feels mostly just about good people doing the best they can feels underwhelming. In essence, it is hard to find much to complain about the book except asking it does more than it sets out to do.