Posts Tagged ‘Old Man’s War series’

(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