The Last Colony

by John Scalzi

Cover image

Series: Old Man's War #3
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2007
ISBN: 0-7653-1697-8
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 320

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This is the third book in the Old Man's War series. It takes place a bit after The Ghost Brigades and can be read separately, but it builds directly on the politics and the ending of The Ghost Brigades. You probably want to read that book first.

John and Jane have finished their tours and left the Colonial Defense Forces, finally, to settle on a fairly new colony world. They have a small farm, local jobs, and are mostly content. The CDF isn't done with them, though; it asks them to return to space and run a new colony, one with a ground-breaking change in the colonization pattern permitted by the CDF. For the first time, the colonists will come from other colony worlds rather than from Earth. And that's just the beginning of the political problems.

In The Last Colony, Scalzi finally breaks from the military fiction background of the series and tackles the politics head-on. The feelings from Old Man's War that something is "off" get a full airing. The political situation revealed but unsatisfactorily dealt with in The Ghost Brigades is brought back to the fore and given a thorough treatment. The characters finally get take a stance other than military loyalty and have an opportunity to make real changes.

Scalzi continues to show multiple angles and rational motivations even for the sides one disagrees with, which is the strength of the political plots of this series. Even when there are right solutions, there aren't easy ones, and even after the characters have picked a course of action, it's difficult to make that course work. Many SF novels with a political edge simplify either the resolution or the decision-making in a way that disregards the momentum of political structures and the advantages of sticking with what you have even when it isn't the best conceivable moral choice. Scalzi works hard here to avoid that and mostly succeeds, which gives the politics a feeling of measured pragmatism that's refreshing. The Last Colony strikes the best balance of the books so far, giving the characters the ability to make and follow through on decisions, but also giving them more responsibility for the effect of those decisions (and allowing them to make mistakes).

Although Scalzi has moved away from most outright humor, the background continues to be light-hearted and occasionally humorous. The Obin, from The Ghost Brigades, play a prominent role and frequently serve as comic relief. Combat isn't white-washed, but neither is Scalzi going for gritty or depressing realism, and he makes extensive use of blunt Special Forces soldiers disregarding the nuances of discussion and negotiation. It makes for fast, entertaining reading, but it's a bit hard at times to take the overall universe that seriously. It also feels hierarchically compressed; John Perry finds it startlingly easy to have heart-to-heart conversations with extremely high-ranking alien representatives in ways that don't hold up to critical examination. It's consistent with the rest of the series, which has never taken itself that seriously, but it does take some of the edge off of the conflicts.

We've left Starship Troopers territory entirely now, but the Heinlein influence still runs deep. I think this series is the most interesting to a reader who can spot the parallels and divergences between Scalzi's take on the military, colonization, politics, and war and Heinlein's. Scalzi isn't copying; he's re-examining, interrogating, and complicating situations that commonly appeared in Heinlein, putting slightly different characters in similar situations and seeing if they come up with the same answers. I particularly liked the look at honesty and openness in a colony leader and its benefits and drawbacks once things start going badly. Scalzi also does a great job making the loyal opposition annoying but still worthy of respect, something that Heinlein frequently had trouble with.

The Last Colony was far more satisfying to me than the previous books of the series because it finally takes on the parts of the CDF that felt rotten and does something about them. It's a good payoff for the series, and an interesting and fast-paced story in its own right. It's all a little light-weight, so don't come to it expecting high philosophy or beautiful description, but it's fine entertainment with lots of suspense and a good grasp of moral balance. Recommended, particularly if you liked the previous books in the series.

Followed by Zoe's Tale.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-06-01

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