Posts Tagged ‘John Scalzi’

Head On, by John Scalzi. TOR, 2018, $25.99 335 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon


I ran out of reading matter a couple of days ago, so I picked up a copy of one of John Scalzi’s new ones. He’s almost always reliable for a good read, so here we go. I’ve been critical of Scalzi at times, and it’s a pleasure to say something deservedly nice.

Head On is a very enjoyable near-future techno-thriller, and I liked it a lot better than its much-praised prequel, Lock In.

This book is near-pure escapist sci-fi, with utterly unrealistic, hero, incorruptible FBI agents — not the guys who infiltrate and entrap environmental activists, frame Native American activists for murder and then send them to the hole, forever, and planned the Chicago PD assassinations of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. No these are the good guys.

Despite this loathsome set up, lauding the forces of repression, this is a good book. The primary character is much more than a cipher, and the main secondary character (Vann) is well drawn.

Following the set-up, Scalzi follows with a beautifully complicated, detailed plot, with all details clicking into place, regarding professional sports leagues and their criminal financial manipulations. Scalzi skillfully guides the reader through the labyrinth.

Writing skill is not the problem here. Political reality is.

Recommended with reservations (Scalzi’s worship of the minions of the powers that be). Enjoyable as long as you’re aware of it or, god forbid, agree with Scalzi’s rosy assessment of the FBI.

(The Consuming Fire, by John Scalzi. Tor, 2018, 316 pp., $26.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon


The Consuming Fire is the second book in Scalzi’s Interdependency series, following 2017’s The Collapsing Empire. Both books seem purely commercial, lowest-common-denominator fantasy that’s set in space to give them a sci-fi gloss. There’s nothing new in either book. There’s a standard medieval political/social set-up, and the sci-fi elements are all well worn: computer simulations of the dead; “the flow,” a path between stars that somehow allows faster than light travel; and . . . well, there isn’t much else.

Worse, this second book in the series is dull. There’s nothing of political, social, scientific, or technological interest in it, and it revolves entirely around personal conflicts and political maneuvering among the nobility. (Those entertained by such things would do well to stick with Game of Thrones.) One of the reasons that this maneuvering is so uninteresting is that the characters are unconvincing: the good guys are unrelievedly pure of heart, and the villains are unrelievedly evil. In other words, they’re cardboard characters, and it’s difficult for a reader to care about such characters.

One might also mention that Scalzi appears to have had historical and political amnesia when he wrote Consuming Fire, because the “emperox,” the primary character, appears entirely uncorrupted by being the most powerful person alive. In Scalzi’s Interdependency universe, power doesn’t corrupt and absolute power doesn’t corrupt at all.

Even worse, the story is largely built upon exposition rather than narrative (telling rather than showing), the amount of dialogue is ungodly, often page after page of it — Chapter 5, for instance, is eleven pages long, and eight of those pages are devoted to dialogue — and the purpose of the dialogue is primarily expository. One odd aspect is that Scalzi throws in quite a bit of swearing into the dialogue. The end result is that Consuming Fire reads like a badly written YA novel the author has attempted to spice up with gratuitous cursing.

As well, due to the moderately distant third-person narration, there’s essentially no interior monologue — Scalzi tells you what his characters are thinking and feeling rather than allowing his characters to do it themselves — as well, there’s not much in the way of action sequences, and the comparatively few descriptive passages are nothing out of the ordinary.

Given Scalzi’s previous achievements — especially the vivid “Old Man’s War” military sci-fi series, the very well crafted near-future thrillers Lock In and Head On, and his fine comic sci-fi novels, Agent to the Stars, Fuzzy Nation, and Redshirts (since Sheckley, Scalzi is unquestionably the best comic sci-fi writer) — The Consuming Fire is shockingly bad.

Very much not recommended.

(We would, however, highly recommend all of the other Scalzi novels mentioned above.)

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s taking a break from writing at the moment after finishing work translating Rodolfo Montes de Oca’s Venezuelan Anarchism: The History of a Movement.  After collapsing in exhaustion, he’ll resume work shortly on the Free Radicals sequel, an unrelated sci-fi novel, and a nonfiction book on the seamier sides of Christianity.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover



End of All Things cover(The End of All Things, by John Scalzi. Tor, 2015, 380 pp., $24.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

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This seems as if it’s the end of Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” series–and if it isn’t, it should be. (From the title–and the author’s apparent weariness in several places–one suspects it will be.)

The original trilogy (Old Man’s War [2005], The Ghost Brigades [2006], and The Lost Colony [2007]) was a refreshing take on military sci-fi, distinguished by how well the books were written, their likable, somewhat complex characters, the ethical ambiguity of the characters’ actions, the inventiveness of the technology described, and the complexity of the political machinations the books outline. At the end of the trilogy, Scalzi indicated he was going to take a break from it.

The series’ popularity, however, seemed to inspire him–likely after prodding from his publisher–to crank out additional books set in the same universe. At that point, things started to go downhill. Zoe’s Tale [2008] followed the year after the final book of the trilogy, and it’s basically just a YA take on The Lost Colony.

The next “novel” in the series, The Human Division, appeared in 2013. It was a print collection of what had been 13 discreet, previously released e-“books” (in reality, e-short stories). It continued the trilogy’s tale in a more or less linear fashion, but was far from cohesive. Worse, it didn’t play fair with the reader: it revolved around a central, gut-wrenching question, and never resolved it, ending on a cliffhanger.

Which brings us to the latest book, The End of All Things. Like The Human Division, it’s a collection of previously published e-books, though it’s a bit more cohesive than The Human Division, largely because it has fewer “episodes,” to use the term from The Human Division, even though the four novellas  reproduced in The End of All Things have four different p.o.v. characters, quite probably for the sake of the author’s convenience.

The first novella, “The Life of the Mind,” resolves the cliffhanger from The Human Division in satisfying manner, and really, in fairness to the reader, should have been The Human Division‘s concluding chapter.

The following two novellas, “This Hollow Union” and “Can Long Endure,” serve to set the stage for the conclusion of The End of All Things by describing the situation in the (alien) Conclave and the (human) Colonial Union as they deal with the situation outlined in “The Life of the Mind.” Of the two, “Can Long Endure” is much more engaging as its p.o.v. character is easier to relate to, there are many good action sequences in it, and it deals with an intriguing political question–is it right, or even useful, to use coercion, violence, and dishonesty for political ends, no matter how necessary those ends might seem.

In contrast, “This Hollow Union” deals only with legislative political intrigue and maneuvering–things I strongly suspect most readers are thoroughly sick of–and has nothing new or interesting to say about them.

The final novella, “To Stand or Fall,” neatly wraps up all of the questions set in motion in The Human Division. One can easily imagine Scalzi breathing a sigh of relief after writing “To Stand or Fall’s” final words, realizing he’ll never have to write another word about this “universe.”

Recommended only for those who have read all of the previous books in the Old Man’s War series.

(If you’ve never read any of Scalzi’s novels, the Old Man’s War trilogy is well worth reading–but don’t bother with The End of All Things, Zoe’s Tale, or The Human Division; I’d recommend even more highly  Scalzi’s intelligent, very funny comic novels Fuzzy Nation, Agent to the Stars, and Red Shirts, and strongly hope for more such novels from Scalzi.)

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s finally making good progress on the sequel.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover


Lock In, by John Scalzi, cover(Lock In, by John Scalzi. Tor, 2014,  336 pp., $24.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon, author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia


This is a very good techno thriller.  Everything about it is well done: an intricate plot revolving around the technological premise (a plague that leaves large numbers of victims conscious but paralyzed, “locked in”); believable, sympathetic characters; good dialogue; and some social relevance regarding disabilities–Scalzi has evidently been paying attention to the debate in the deaf community about a possible gene-mod cure for deafness. About all that’s missing is humor, something that Scalzi is very good at (Fuzzy Nation, Agent to the Stars, Red Shirts), but that would be inappropriate here.

If you like the techno-thriller genre, you’ll probably love Lock In.  If, like me, you hate techno thrillers but read all of Scalzi’s books regardless of genre, you could find worse ways to burn a few hours.

Recommended for Scalzi completists and techno-thriller fans.


human division

(The Human Division, by John Scalzi; Tor, 2013, $25.99, 431 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Ideally, books in series should begin with synopses of previous books in the series. The Human Division doesn’t. Readers not already familiar with Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” series will find themselves at sea. References to events and characters in the previous books’ universe abound in The Human Division, but appear in fragmentary form, making it nearly impossible for the reader to reconstruct that universe.

As well, books in series should stand as self-contained stories. Unfortunately, they rarely do; most reach unsatisfying conclusions, and some simply stop midstream. “The Human Division,” the most recent book in the “Old Man’s War” series, provides an extreme example of this. It not only stops midstream, it seems to deliberately make its stopping point (“conclusion” or “ending” would be inaccurate) extremely unsatisfying.

The apparent intent is to build suspense to the maximum extent possible, and then fail to resolve the suspense, in order to entice the reader to buy the next book in the series. The Human Division does this by basing its entire narrative around a central, gut-wrenching question, and then provides not even a hint of its answer. This gimmick from 1930s movie serials, when cliffhangers resolved at the start of the following episode, hasn’t aged well. It was bad enough when resolution was a week away, and it’s worse here, where resolution (at least in print form) is a good year away.

As one would expect, Scalzi’s individual chapters are skillfully written. But the chapter structure seems somewhat disjointed; the chapters (termed “episodes”) seem more like individual stories set in the same universe rather than organic parts of a coherent novel. One real head-scratcher is Episode Ten (out of 13 total), which is devoted entirely to character development of a secondary character, and advances the plot not one iota.

The reason for the book’s curious structure isn’t apparent until you look at the small print on the copyright page and discover that the individual chapters (sorry, “episodes”) in The Human Division were originally issued as a series of e-“books”–e-chapters would be more accurate–and then slapped together into hardcover form.

There are indications within the book that the publisher is aware of its shortcomings: 1) the publisher mentions only on the copyright page, in tiny type, that the book is a collection of e-“books”; 2) there’s the odd substitution of “episodes” for “chapters”; 3) nowhere does the publisher refer to the book as a novel; 4) instead, the publisher bills it on the front cover as a “tale.”

And even that’s a stretch. “Tales” normally follow conventional dramatic structure, and have a beginning, middle, and end (that, among other things resolves the central problem). In that light, The Human Division could more accurately be described as “two-thirds of a tale.”

This book is a disappointment. It’s disjointed, it manipulates the reader, and is ultimately, and deliberately, unsatisfying. Not recommended.

(Two of Scalzi’s recent books I would recommend are his fine comic novels, Agent to the Stars and Fuzzy Nation.)

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

Free Radicals front cover

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