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Book Review – Redshirts by John Scalzi

I could summarize the plot of this novel in a short paragraph, but I won’t because if I did, you won’t have the “Oh, that’s different” experiences I had reading it, and I quite enjoyed them. I wouldn’t want to ruin those for you.

At one level, this is obviously a parody of Star Trek, The Original Series, told from the perspective of the poor unfortunate crewmembers sent on away missions for the sole purpose of dying in interesting and dramatic ways to advance the plot. As such, it’s a hoot. It has aliens, space travel, split realities, and inexplicable tech stuff. It also has additional layers that make it more than a comic ride through the galaxy aboard the Universal Union Spaceship Intrepid. These layers provide depth and make this a solid, thought provoking read. But even with all the philosophical and existential brain-bending, it is still a lighthearted and charming book.

When I started reading this, it reminded me of the movie Galaxy Quest. Then it became more like Star Trek IV. Then it turned a corner and seemed a bit like the Thursday Next books (by Jasper Fforde) with maybe a touch of The Never Ending Story. (Yes, I confess to being something of a geek, but who else would be reading stuff like this?) My point is that there is more than one story being told here. It’s rather like a thought experiment in novel form. I loved it.

The story has interesting, likeable characters, witty dialogue, and a very Star Trek-like setting. But if you’re looking for a mindless action adventure with a few jokes, this isn’t for you. If you’re looking for a simple slapstick parody of Star Trek, this isn’t it. It is also nothing like Scalzi’s Old Man Goes to War books (which are also very good) or even Fuzzy Nation (also a winner for me). Scalzi continues to grow as a writer, and this book proves it. I won’t say it’s better than his other books, but it is definitely different. What I will say is that I thought it was so good I wished I wrote it.

Book Review – The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

I thoroughly enjoyed this sequel to Old Man’s War. Jane Sagan is back in a supporting role, but this novel stars Jared Dirac, a cloned and genetically modified elite soldier in the Colonial Defense Forces’ Ghost Brigades. He is the unfortunate host for the memories of Charles Boutin, a brilliant scientist turned traitor who is helping an alien species, the Obin, in their war against the CDF.

Dirac’s inner conflict for self-identification is a central theme. Who is he? What is he? Is he truly human or just a manufactured killing machine? Is he a unique individual, or is he just a copy of Boutin? Does he have true choices? Can he decide who and what he is? Dirac explores these and other questions and, at the end, finds his answers.

This is also a story of mankind’s quest for the stars, their need to expand and diverge. But although space may be limitless, prime planets suitable for life are not, and humanity has found itself in conflict for them with a large number of alien species. This is why the CDF exists — to defend human colonies and sometimes to remove the colonies of others.

This is not just your typical ‘action packed’ military science fiction story, though. Nor is it ‘hard’ science fiction that relies significantly on whiz-bang gadgetry and prose peppered with heaps of techno-babble. There is a high-tech medical and genetic component, of course, but this novel is primarily ‘soft’ science fiction. Its focus is on the ‘soft’ sciences, such as psychology, sociology, culture, and politics. This is where the true conflict is, both within humanity and between species. There is real depth to Scalzi’s characters, and their interaction highlights some of the best and worst of humanity.

I recommend this book, but read Old Man’s War first. Then continue with The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale. That’s it in this saga for now, but I hope Scalzi will write another. If he does, I’ll read it.

Book Review – The God Engines by John Scalzi

This is a quick read by one of my favorite contemporary science fiction writers, but it’s not science fiction. It’s a space fantasy. At only 136 pages in hard cover, it can be easily read on a rainy afternoon, which is what I did. It is set in a universe in which gods have replaced science. Things people once did for themselves using technology have become the purview of gods. If you want to communicate across distances (like radio), you pray for it to happen. If you wish to travel to another planet, you compel a god imprisoned by your god to move your starship. Everything on the starships, communication, life support, engines… is god-powered. Nothing happens without the direct intervention of some god, and they are not doing it to be magnanimous. The gods do not serve man. Man serves them in their competition with other gods for believers and the faith that gives them power.

This book differs much from everything else I’ve read by John Scalzi. In addition to being fantasy rather than science fiction, it’s darker. The characters lack the ineffable charm that I’ve come to expect from Scalzi’s creations and there are few if any smiles invoked by the book. It includes a fairly detailed sex scene and graphic violence. I imagine it is intended as a social commentary but I can’t say the message it is trying to convey was clear to me.

I thoroughly enjoyed many of Scalzi’s other works including his ‘Old Man Goes to War’ series and ‘Fuzzy Nation.’ I’ve ordered ‘Redshirts’ and eagerly await its arrival. I can’t honestly say I enjoyed this particular story much, but the setting and characters were interesting, and the art between the chapters of the hard cover edition are a nice addition. It kept me reading, but I much prefer Scalzi’s science fiction.

Book Review – Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

My Rating: 5 Stars

This is essentially the same story as told in ‘The Last Colony’ but from a different point of view. So why would I give it five stars? Simply because it is done so well. It caught my interest, made me smile, jerked my emotions, and reintroduced me to people and places that I became well acquainted with in Scalzi’s other ‘An Old Man’s War’ books.

Technically, this should probably be considered a Young Adult novel because of the teenage protagonist. There is nothing wrong with this. Other authors (myself included) have written YA spinoffs set in the same world and with overlapping characters from their adult novels. This, however, is not a spinoff. This is the same story related in ‘The Last Colony’ but from the perspective of John’s and Jane’s adopted daughter, Zoe. She was a great minor character in previous books and an exceptional protagonist in this one, which is told in first person, giving us insights into how she deals with being an orphan, the adopted daughter of the colony leaders of the planet Roanoke, and something like a goddess to the alien species known as the Obin.

The aspect of the book that feels a bit unnatural is some of the dialogue between Zoe and her friends. They are almost too witty, and Zoe and her friend Gretchen have more self-confidence than seems likely for two teenage girls. Of course, they are not normal teenagers. After all, who wants to read about hormonally powered, angst driven, girls whose major concern is how to attract a boyfriend? … Oh, right. Those. Do yourself a favor and read this instead. Zoe has angst, she has hormones, she even has a boyfriend, but she also has intelligence, common sense, and wisdom beyond her years.

Scalzi has become one of my favorite authors, and I would love to see more stories set in this universe he has created. How does Roanoke fare? How does the Colonial Union deal with the Conclave? Do they join them? Do they oppose them? Is the C.U. overthrown? And what about Earth? It’s an interesting world and there are many more story possibilities here. If he does continue with this thread, though, it will leave him with less time for his other writing, which would be a shame. Perhaps he could be cloned…

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