Thoughts on the 2008 Hugo Nominees for Best Novel: The Last Colony

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They say that John Scalzi has the brain of Robert A. Heinlein in a tank somewhere, or is channeling the spirit of RAH, or even is the next incarnation of RAH (how does that work?).

Well, it’s all true, but then again not true. I discovered this on a trip to another convention, a few days before the hardcover of The Last Colony was released.

For me, trips involving planes, due to living on an island, last anywhere from 12 hours to, one unfortunate time routing through O’Hare, over 24. During one of those stretches where you sit in some random airport and wait for the next (ultimately late) flight to come in, I ran out of reading material. And had no Kindle at the time.

It was a horrifying moment.

So I hit the Barnes and Noble—which I usually avoid like the plague—in the airport. I saw RAH’s Starship Troopers sitting next to Old Man’s War. This seemed to be a sign, so I bought them together.

I read the RAH first. I thought it was pretty neat. I had never been exposed to military SF before. The ending seemed abrupt, which kind of spoiled it all.

Then I started Old Man’s War, and was completely blown away. Not in the same sense of being blown away by, say, Brasyl or Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell; but in the sense of a kind of reading comfort I only get from authors I can re-read constantly and enjoy. The last ones were Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

I loved the characters; the SF was reachable for me, a non-SF kind of gal; I loved the words; I loved the plot. And damn it. He’s just better than Heinlein, or at least better than Starship Troopers, by far. The ending was perfect, and there was even a little romance—a very unconventional one, but all the more lovely for its oddness.

On the next layover, I made a beeline for the nearest airport Borders and was thankful that Ghost Brigades and The Android’s Dream were there.

I ate them up. Ghost Brigades was unusual, in that it broke away from first person and used third person, and there wasn’t any John Perry around. Still enjoyable, and very much like Heinlein, but turned to 11.

At the convention, everything was fine until I finished both Ghost Brigades and The Android’s Dream. Fortunately the hotel lets you have packages sent to your room. I visited Amazon’s site and bought The Last Colony. In hardcover. Overnight delivery.

And I was very happy. The Last Colony still has a dash of military fiction, but it morphs strongly into what I now think of as space colonization fiction (a la Heinlein’s Red Planet for instance). Perry and Sagan are in charge of starting a brand new space colony, which is a natural continuation of their original roles in holding the fort on other planets so that colonies can be started at all.

Everything that can go wrong does go wrong, of course, resulting in an intergalactic conflict that might leave all of humanity dead—after all, when you have 412 races joined against you in the form of the Conclave, it’s going to be a bit hard. And the really interesting bit is that humanity probably deserves large parts of that, as opposed to being innocent and helpless and, this is important, the absolute good guys.

From what I’ve scanned of Heinlein’s bibliography, nothing of his really comes close to that.

And General Szilard is so cool, although the main characters are John Perry and Jane Sagan, whom I enjoyed seeing together after the space of Ghost Brigades. I think, though, that Hickory and Dickory, Perry and Sagan’s daughter Zoe’s alien escort, are wonderful secondary characters. The whole concept of the Obin (an intelligent race without individual consciousness) is wonderful. The whole thing is re-readbly wonderful.

Then came the Hugos. And while I love The Last Colony, by itself it doesn’t blow me away. It’s the series that blows me away. I don’t know what to think about that; do you vote based on the book alone, or based on the series? It’s like trying to vote on Battleship Galactica’s Razor mini-series, also nominated for a 2008 Hugo in a different category. Is it the series as a whole—or just the mini-series? I mean, the entire season of Heroes got nominated. Then again, “long form” is more flexible than “novel”, since it leaves out novel series.

It was a difficult vote, but in the end The Last Colony was not a top scorer for me. (On the other hand, I hope that Scalzi totally sweeps the Fan Writer award.)

Now the question is: will Zoe’s Tale have an impact that will go beyond the series? Does that even make sense? When I think about Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, I find a few that stand out—such as Night Watch—but most of them are series-impactful, not stand-alone-impactful. Perhaps Zoe’s Tale will be Scalzi’s Night Watch.

In the end, no matter wht happens, I enjoy all of the OMW series, just like I enjoy all of Discworld, or all of Neil Gaiman’s works. I buy them all in multiple formats, because paper versions wear out, audio books are so keen, and I can’t read eBooks with peace of mind in the bath.

And you know—writers write to be read.

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