My friend Megan does capsule reviews of the books she reads every month, and whenever she does I think to myself, “Oh! That’s clever! I should do that.” And then I fail to keep track of all the books I read, and by the time Megan puts up her next set of reviews, I can’t remember what I read when. So I am going to go a less regimented route, and just start doing reviews of my recent reading whenever the mood strikes me, and not worry about some books slipping through the cracks.
• We Who Are About To… by Joanna Russ — While I was at Clarion, Geoff Ryman told me that one of my stories needed to be a tale of grand adventure and escape, because he didn’t think I had the temperament to write an elegiac rumination on the inevitability of death, which was the only other way the story could work. My response was approximately, “Pshh! Don’t label me, author man! I’m confident I can write anything!” because I’m mature like that. Geoff recommended We Who Are About To… as a novel to look at for how to do that well. I’d heard of Russ as the author of The Female Man, often given as an example of early feminist SF, but I had never read any of her work. I found this book interesting, but not really enjoyable. The first 100 pages or so are a story of the survivors of a spaceship crash wrangling with gender roles and the tyranny of the majority, written in the tersest prose style I have ever encountered. After only one of the initial survivors is left alive (not really a spoiler, it is made clear from the very start that none of them are surviving to the end of the book), the writing becomes more discursive and far less interesting for the last 70 pages. It is certainly a rumination on the inevitability of death, but to this reader it failed to be an engaging one. I found the book disjointed, and had to force myself to finish it. I will still probably read The Female Man at some point.
• The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi — Scalzi’s writing is smooth and entertaining; I’ve never read a book of his that I haven’t enjoyed. That said, I found this to be the weakest of the Old Man’s War novels, largely because it focused so heavily on a bit of future tech that didn’t work for me in the previous book. The part of Old Man’s War detailing the transfer of consciousness from the soldiers’ original bodies to their fighting bodies felt fairly hand-wavey to me, treating cognition and identity as something akin to a videogame cartridge that gets removed from one brain and slammed into another. Thus the uncomfortable “Think Like A Dinosaur” identity duplication problem is avoided, but not in a very convincing fashion. It didn’t work for me in Old Man’s War, where it just showed up once, and continued to not work for me throughout all of The Ghost Brigades. Also, the plot felt a little bit formulaic, in that it twice employed the “character has a minorly clever insight early in the story that turns out to be (surprise!) applicable under the much more dire circumstances of the climax” summer movie callback structure. It was done well, but my reaction to it was that I was reading a very accomplished demonstration of something I had seen before, rather than being surprised by something new.
• The Last Colony, by John Scalzi — The third book in the series I enjoyed more, especially because it fixed another problem I had with the previous book. Somewhere in The Ghost Brigades it is mentioned that our part of the galaxy has over 700 spacefaring races, and when I read that line my immediate thought was that I hadn’t been made to feel that the galaxy really was that heavily populated. I didn’t buy that there were other aliens outside the edges of the page, and that the ones in the story were merely those most relevant to the characters at the moment. But Scalzi does a much better job making the galaxy feel like a fully populated place in The Last Colony, which I appreciated. Precisely what it means for the Obin to have intelligence without consciousness, and how their consciousness prostheses effect them is not really well explained, but that ended up bothering me much less than the similar level of handwaviness about consciousness transfer in the previous two books–probably because there was no issue of the potential for duplicated identity to be addressed. I more or less just decided that they were all Data turning his emotion chip on and off and didn’t worry about it. John, Jane, Zoë, Hickory, and Dickory are a delightful family to spend a novel reading about, and I didn’t even mind Zoë showing up with a deus ex machina toward the end because I knew I would get another whole novel worth of time to spend to them.
• Zoe’s Tale, by John Scalzi — I think that my friend Kat is correct when she opines in this comment thread that Zoe’s Tale is the strongest novel in the series. Zoë’s voice is a real departure from the beats and cadences of the previous books, and is very convincingly realized. I think Scalzi is justifiably proud of her. While it still comes fifth in my ranking of this year’s best novel Hugo shortlist, it isn’t by as much as I thought it would be based on having only read Old Man’s War. John Perry learns a lot, but doesn’t really change much as a person from the first moment we meet him. Jane Sagan changes from a no-identity weapon into a person, which is an interesting character arc, but not one that is very universal or easy to relate to. Jared Dirac’s path of personal development is even more divorced from standard human experience. But Zoë is different. Zoë Boutin-Perry is the first main character we really get to see grow as a person in a recognizable way, and that is what makes Zoe’s Tale the best of these books. My only real complaint about it is that I think my enjoyment was much enhanced by knowing things about the story from the last book–such as the full details of the redacted Conclave video–that couldn’t be included in this book because Zoë never learned them. I’m glad I read the series in order, and I do wonder whether the book wouldn’t seem significantly less nuanced if read on its own. But I believe that the best moments in the book, such as Zoë’s thoughts about Enzo or her address to the assembled Obin on the space station, will be affecting for any reader. Zoë is Scalzi’s strongest character, and that makes her moments of triumph more powerful than any that came before.