The Last Colony by John Scalzi
The Last Colony, the third book in John Scalzi’s OLD MAN’S WAR series, returns us to the perspective of John Perry, the “old man” hero of the first novel in the series, Old Man’s War. John Perry is only mentioned in the second novel, The Ghost Brigades, which told the story of how the cyborg Special Forces soldiers found and defeated the scientist Charles Boutin, a traitor to the Colonial Union. On that mission they also found Zoe, Boutin’s young daughter. Zoe has been adopted by Jane Sagan and John Perry and the little family has been farming on one of Earth’s colonies where John and Jane are the leaders.
Life is easy for them until the Colonial Union comes calling — they need leaders for a new colonization effort and John and Jane have been selected. This new colony (named Roanoke…. hmmmm… I think I wouldn’t have signed up for that) will be comprised of people from several different human worlds and John and Jane are responsible for its success. However, the Colonial Union hasn’t been completely honest with them. It will be a lot more dangerous than the members of Roanoke have been led to believe. They are being played as political pawns and they don’t realize it until it’s too late. And it’s not just Roanoke that’s in danger, but the entire human race.
The Last Colony (I keep wanting to write “The Lost Colony”) has a different tone than Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades. It takes place mainly on a planet, rather than in space, and deals mostly with domestic and political matters rather than space battles and espionage. Some of the political dialogue between characters we don’t know is dull, especially if you’re hoping for lasers and explosions, but Scalzi continues to explore the interesting theme of access to information and the problems that occur when the government controls the press. When and how should governments control information? That’s always a relevant topic, isn’t it?
Like its predecessors, The Last Colony features John Scalzi’s engaging writing style and ultra-competent well-developed characters. Some of these are characters we already know and love (John and Jane) one is a character we are happy we’re getting to know (Zoe) and some are new characters that Scalzi makes it easy for us to love (e.g., the Mennonite leader, Hickory and Dickory) or hate (e.g., the journalists). And some are there to show us that our first impressions aren’t always correct.
I mentioned in my review of The Ghost Brigades that the political situation was getting murky and it gets even murkier here. It is not clear to us (or to many of the characters) whose side we should be on. Readers may find it discomfiting to realize they are having trouble sympathizing with their home planet. It may be even more discomfiting to realize that Scalzi’s story doesn’t have to stretch the imagination too far. Sometimes “human nature” is not a pretty thing, but it’s what we know. What if someday we find ourselves needing to interact with beings who have a non-human nature?
You can probably read The Last Colony without having read the previous books, Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades, but you’ll have some catching up to do. It would be better to wait on this one until you’ve read its predecessors. They’re both great books, anyway. The fourth book in the OLD MAN’S WAR series is Zoe’s Tale which tells the story of Roanoke colony from Zoe’s perspective. It’s mostly the exact same plot as The Last Colony with a few side adventures for Zoe. If you’re only interested in the plot progression, you can skip Zoe’s Tale. If you’re interested in getting to know Zoe, you should read it.
I’m listening to William Dufris narrate OLD MAN’S WAR. I think he’s amazing. Macmillan Audio produced this installment.
With The Last Colony, I begin to understand why many reviewers refer to John Scalzi’s work as Heinleinesque. It’s filled with smart people who are going to solve the problems of a galaxy with smarts, will-power, snarky banter and a never-say-die attitude. And I believe that they are going to succeed, because everyone, even the seventeen-year-old daughter, is hyper-competent.
The Last Colony has everything I like about Scalzi’s work. In addition to smarts and snark, it has thoughtfulness, people who work together even when they don’t agree about everything, well-written action sequences and, most importantly, a goat. I enjoyed this book, but Kat liked it a little more than I did, and I felt like there was a large plot gap left by the end.
John and Jane Perry and their daughter Zoe are quite happy on the colony world of Huckleberry, until they are approached by the Colonial Union with an offer to lead the settlement of a new colony on a world called Roanoke. While that name apparently sets off no alarms for John and Jane, they and the rest of the 2500 settlers soon discover that nothing about their new home world is what they were led to believe. They aren’t there to be a colony; they are there as bait in the CU’s political war with a coalition of non-human worlds called the Conclave, which has been expelling colonies from worlds it claims. “Expelling” can mean evacuating, but if the settlers refuse to leave, the Conclave is willing to kill everyone and destroy the colony. This is the fate awaiting the Roanoke colonists if the Conclave discovers them.
Just setting up the colony is a challenge, though, because nothing the colonists were told is true. The challenge gets more serious when the settlers clash with the group of intelligent natives, who use stone-age technology. No one knew there was an intelligent species on the planet, and the first contact is a fatal one for several colonists. The colonists dub the locals “werewolves” for their looks and their ferocity. John and Jane must fend off the Conclave and figure out how to deal with the werewolves, all the while putting up with the annoying journalist who is “embedded” in the colony.
Zoe has her own set of problems, and they come along to the colony. Zoe is a cultural icon for a race called the Obin. Consider her a cross between an internet-reality-star and a goddess; in her case, her biological father is considered a god to the Obin. Her two Obin bodyguards, Hickory and Dickory, accompany her to Roanoke, to the consternation of many humans, who remember being at war with the Obin. Hickory and Dickory (Zoe’s names for them) are great characters and great complications, because their loyalty and the loyalty of their government is solely to Zoe.
The main plot is good, with lots of twists and plenty of players in the shadows. John Perry runs afoul of the Colonial Union when he honors his own moral code rather than the directives he was given by the CU; he and Jane are removed as leaders of the colony just as the colony is in the greatest danger. The choices they make set events in motion that drive the rest of the OLD MAN’S WAR series. And Zoe, who has been in the background for most of the book, plays a crucial role, along with Hickory and Dickory, in saving the day.
Along the twisty, fast-paced, exiting way, the werewolves drop straight out of the story. They mysteriously vanish and stop harassing the settlement. At the very end, when things have changed drastically for John, Jane and Zoe, there is still no mention of what the colony plans to do. Since the werewolves followed a grazer herd animal, and those herds migrated, I assumed that they had just moved on, following the migration, and would come back around in a year. There is one hint about something that could have happened, but it is pretty darned subtle. If I didn’t know that there was another book, Zoe’s Tale, that covers the same plot material from Zoe’s point of view, which might address the werewolves better, I would be pretty disappointed. As it is, this gap marred my enjoyment of this book enough to drop it from a 3.5 star review to a 3.0 star one. Ultimately, though, all the things Scalzi does well are in here, and if you are reading the entire series, The Last Colony explains a lot about the final two books.
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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