The End of All Things: A fun ride, with some missed opportunities

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe End of All Things by John Scalzi science fiction book reviewsThe End of All Things by John Scalzi

My experience with John Scalzi’s latest book in the OLD MAN’S WAR series, The End of All Things, was familiar: errands were delayed and chores undone as I pushed back everything so I could keep reading ‘til the end. Scalzi’s accessible style, brisk pacing and interesting premise certainly held my interest. Some favorite characters returned. Spaceships blew up and blew each other up, and there was an exciting ending. Looking back, though, I see missed opportunities.

Kat read the audio book and she adds her thoughts in blue.

The End of All Things focuses on the growing sense of discontent and unrest among the planets of the Colonial Union and the distrust between the Conclave, an assembly of four-hundred non-human races, and the Colonial Union (neither Earth nor the Colonial Union is a member of the Conclave). The clues that were planted in earlier books, especially the disappearing ships, both Conclave and Colonial Union, bear fruit in this book, and a fourth player, a group calling themselves Equilibrium, comes out of the shadows. Like The Human Division, The End of All Things is composed of separate novellas which were serialized earlier this summer: The Life of the Mind, This Hollow Union, Can Long Endure, To Stand or Fall.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe first novella, The Life of the Mind, is nearly a techno-thriller. The main character in The Life of the Mind, Rafe Daquin, plays a powerful role throughout the entire book, and faces an interesting dilemma as the book opens. He is also the book’s biggest missed opportunity.

Rafe is trained as a ship pilot and gets a job as third pilot on the trade ship Chandler. The Chandler is boarded by hostiles. Soon Rafe is a prisoner — without spoilers, let’s say he is about the most isolated type of prisoner someone can be in a science fiction book. His captors promise him that once he does what they need, they will give him his freedom. Rafe doesn’t believe them. We don’t either. They’ve lied about everything else.

Like most prisoners, Rafe dreams of ways to sabotage his captors’ plan. Unlike most prisoners, Rafe actually has the knowledge and technical skills to do it. His attempt to trick the enemy comprises the story of The Life of the Mind. I’ll address that in more detail later in the review.

Kat, what did you think of the opening of the book, and Rafe’s predicament? I’m curious to know how this was handled in audio format because of the unusual nature of the communication.

I thought Rafe’s predicament was the most exciting part of the entire book, not just the opening novella. Rafe tells us in the very first sentence about his dire condition and I was eager to hear how he ended up in that situation and how he was planning to get out of it. As I was reading, I figured he’d escape because he’s one of those smart tech-savvy super-competent Scalzi heroes. In fact, I basically knew how he’d do this, too, because I recognized the clue Scalzi gave us during Rafe’s job interview. I’ve seen Scalzi use that technique before. But, even though I knew what was coming, I still found the plot exciting. I also enjoyed the metaphysical aspects of The Life of the Mind. The novella is appropriately named after a well-known philosophy text by Hannah Arendt.

As for the audio, it was a first person POV and the narrator, William Dufris, performed it like any other first person POV. (No special effects.) The only comment I have about the narration in this section of the book is that I thought Wil Wheaton would have been a better choice for the narrator of this particular novella. Wheaton tends to narrate Scalzi’s stories that have this type of hero and his voice fits Rafe’s personality better. However, Dufris has narrated the other OLD MAN’S WAR books, and the publisher generally tries to stick with the same narrator for a series, otherwise readers complain when voices and personalities change.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsTwo of the novellas in The End of All Things — This Hollow Union and Can Long Endure — were written from female perspectives. Tavia Gilbert does a wonderful job with these. I liked her even better than Dufris.

I also thought Rafe’s story was the most exciting and compelling, and I’m glad Scalzi started with it.

Other sections of the book show us what’s going on within the Conclave during a violent transition of power, from the point of view of that body’s second-in-command. In another section we follow Heather Lee, a Lieutenant in the Colonial Defense Force, as she has to decide between duty and conscience. Harry Wilson, Hart Schmidt and Ambassador Odo Abumwe return, along with Colonels Rigsby and Egan, with information that will change everything. They have a plan, but it’s a desperate one. The best they can hope is that their actions will downgrade the approaching catastrophe to a mere disaster.

The End of All Things manages to be fast-paced and suspenseful at the same time. Shifting points of view between the sections gives the sense of sweeping, universal changes, while the action is largely personal or small scale, allowing for action descriptions that feel real.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAs you said, The Life of the Mind is a techno-thriller and was my favorite section of The End of All Things because it was fast-paced, suspenseful, exciting and clever. I also liked the third novella, Can Long Endure, which stars Heather Lee and her team of CDF soldiers trying to quell rebellions on various planets. I liked the mix of boots-on-the-ground action with the soldiers’ humorous philosophizing about their job. And explosions are always appreciated. I’d agree with you that much of the success of these action scenes is due to the personal scale. We see the effects of this huge long-lasting war on individual people’s lives.

I thought that too much of the plot, though, took place in meeting rooms and assemblies and too many of the solutions were agreed upon by a small group of people that managed to push through their quickly created agendas by bypassing larger governing bodies. I know that Scalzi’s heroes are all brilliant, charismatic, and have humanity’s best interests at heart, but somehow this felt unrealistic and, in fact, a little reckless to me. But maybe I’m taking this too seriously.

This is a good time to mention that readers who haven’t read previous OLD MAN’S WAR books will be at a disadvantage here. They may find it difficult to keep all of the characters and institutions straight and there’s a lot of history in this universe that they’ll be missing. As implied by the title, The End of All Things isn’t the best place to start. I’d say that readers need to at least read The Human Division and, preferably, go all the way back to Old Man’s War.

What do you think, Marion?

I have only read three of the OLD MAN’S WAR books, and I had no trouble understanding what was happening here, or what was at stake. I think readers must have already read The Human Division, though, to really get what’s going on.

That’s good to know. Also good to know is that despite the title, The End of All Things is not the last OLD MAN’S WAR book. Scalzi is planning at least one more book in this series. It will be interesting to see where he goes with it, because this story is more than just an exciting adventure. Its heroes aren’t just interested in winning a war with aliens. They’re just as concerned with big over-arching philosophical issues such as nationalism, interactionism vs isolationism, and how activities such as revolution, immigration, trade, and terrorism are affected by these ideologies. They see these as not just philosophical issues, but moral ones, too. I noticed that several of the scenarios and situations Scalzi’s characters encounter mirror events from our own world’s recent history.

I thought he used the springboard of current events to ask some big questions very well. As far as the heroes making big decisions in a tiny private room, I had some discomfort with that too… but frankly, I’ve started reading a bit more early American history lately, and it’s surprising how many big decisions actually got made exactly that way. I hope that part of the book sparks lots of discussions.

It’s interesting that you mention the parallel with early American history. That’s a good point, and Scalzi alludes to early American history more than once in this book. Both Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln are quoted. The title of the second novella, Can Long Endure, comes from the Gettysburg Address.

Marion, you mentioned missed opportunities…

Point of view choices bring some problems. One difficulty for me is Scalzi’s use of a first-person narrative voice. First-person Rafe, for example, sounds a lot like first-person Harry Wilson. Even Hafte Sorvalh of the Conclave, a diplomat and a nonhuman, occasionally drifts into Scalzi-esque explanations that aren’t quite couched in her rhythm and tone. Heather Lee seems to have the strongest immunity to this, and she is a character who mostly reports on what she sees. Certainly her team are all equally articulate and quick with the witty banter. No one is morose or slow on the uptake.

Kat, you’ve mentioned before that sometimes Scalzi’s characters all sound alike. Did you find that here?

Definitely. I do not know if Scalzi is capable of writing a stupid character. If you read his blog, you’ll see that he clearly believes there are many stupid people in the world, but you rarely see them in his books. Maybe he figures they’ve been selected out of the gene pool by this time?

Kat, that must be it!

That point leads me indirectly back to Rafe Daquin. Rafe’s harrowing situation opens the book; it lets us know how high the stakes are and makes it easy to hate the bad guys, while not letting the Colonial Union off the hook for its part in things. That said, Rafe is designed as a character who doesn’t have much to lose. He lives with his parents, there’s no talk of a significant other or even close friends. We know he will stand up for himself and others. We know he has that unusual skillset that’s going to be so handy. Once Rafe is imprisoned, he makes the shift to hero pretty easily. As isolated as he is, Rafe never once stops to contemplate what he has lost. He never thinks of kissing a lover, eating ice cream, catching a baseball (there is a beach reference later in the book, but it doesn’t come from him). Rafe never falls into despair, even momentarily. More seriously, I think, once Rafe embarks on his plan of sabotage, he never experiences a single setback or even a close call. The suspense could have been ratcheted up here.

Scalzi included a section at the end of the book that contains deleted scenes and what he describes as false starts. The depiction of Rafe in one of the discarded openings caught my attention. Discard-Rafe is not a decent, unassuming guy; he’s a slacker, the son of wealthy, powerful parents, an underachiever who has never had to solve a problem on his own. Scalzi abandoned this version of his prisoner-turned-hero. I can think of several reasons why: the character arc for discard-Rafe would have made for a much longer book. Scalzi may also have feared that readers would find that Rafe unlikeable. I wish he would have trusted to his talent and taken the risk though. Frankly, hero-in-waiting Rafe was just less interesting.

Yes, I thought the same thing. Everything is too easy for Rafe and he’s uniquely prepared for this challenge. It doesn’t seem to take much effort. I excused this because it was a novella, so there was limited space, but I would have enjoyed the story even more if there had been more tension and suspense, and if we had witnessed more of the emotional turmoil that Rafe must have been feeling.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI agree that slacker Rafe would have been more interesting, but he might not have been as believable. I also think that the version that made it into the book was much better written. Also, a scene toward the end of the final novella (To Stand or Fall), when another character was in the same situation as Rafe, did bring out some of the sense of loss that Rafe was missing.

I definitely agree with the writing. As an aspiring writer, I appreciate Scalzi including “false starts” because I can see how, in the final version, he reduced or compressed all the nice-but-unnecessary detail and plunged the reader head-first into a character’s bad situation. Oh, “head-first” is kind of a poor choice of words, isn’t it?

Hahaha! Good one!

Well, we had quite a bit to say, but it’s pretty clear we both enjoyed this book. Scalzi ushers in a new era in the OLD MAN’S WAR universe, and wraps up several questions. This book will please both long-term Scalzi fans and readers who are looking for something a little different. It sounds like the audiobook has a high standard of quality. While it’s not his most thoughtful book, (as far as I’m concerned, that’s Lock In), in The End of All Things Scalzi delivers an engrossing, fast-paced adventure.

I’m glad we could work on this review together, Marion. It seems especially appropriate in this case because… you know, two heads are better than one… (sorry.)

The End of All Things by John Scalzi science fiction book reviewsPublication date: August 11, 2015. Hugo-award winning author, John Scalzi returns to his best-selling Old Man’s War universe with The End of All Things, the direct sequel to 2013’s The Human Division. Humans expanded into space… only to find a universe populated with multiple alien species bent on their destruction. Thus was the Colonial Union formed, to help protect us from a hostile universe. The Colonial Union used the Earth and its excess population for colonists and soldiers. It was a good arrangement… for the Colonial Union. Then the Earth said: no more. Now the Colonial Union is living on borrowed time-a couple of decades at most, before the ranks of the Colonial Defense Forces are depleted and the struggling human colonies are vulnerable to the alien species who have been waiting for the first sign of weakness, to drive humanity to ruin. And there’s another problem: A group, lurking in the darkness of space, playing human and alien against each other — and against their own kind — for their own unknown reasons. In this collapsing universe, CDF Lieutenant Harry Wilson and the Colonial Union diplomats he works with race against the clock to discover who is behind attacks on the Union and on alien races, to seek peace with a suspicious, angry Earth, and keep humanity’s union intact…or else risk oblivion, and extinction-and the end of all things.

Old Man’s War — (2005-2015) Nominated for a Hugo Award. Publisher: John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army. The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce — and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding. Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets. John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine — and what he will become is far stranger.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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5 comments

  1. Marion: With regards to your point about Scalzi not taking risks with unlikeable characters, that is one of my issues with his writing. He’s talented enough, and has interesting enough concepts, that I’d like to see what he can do with an anti-hero.

    Still, this series does sound really good, and I liked the in-depth conversation between you two!

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