Review: ‘The End of All Things’ by John Scalzi
(I received a free copy of “The End of All Things” by John Scalzi from Tor in exchange for my unbiased review.)
There is, of course, more than one way to start a good book.
Some authors will plunk you down right in the thick of things, throwing you off the deep end with little set up.
Others will carefully guide you through the plot, letting you get to know the players and the stakes in an organic fashion.
Still others will hook you with a good lede, a strong opening sentence that makes it absolutely certain you won’t be putting the book down.
John Scalzi goes the latter route in “The End of All Things,” the latest in the Old Man’s War series: “So, I’m supposed to tell you how I became a brain in a box.”
The book follows the same structure as the previous entry in the series, “The Human Division,” in that it’s a group of related novellas that advance the plot from different perspectives. Though the book draws on the characters and events in previous Old Man’s War books, it is absolutely not necessary to have read them to enjoy “The End of All Things”; in fact, Scalzi said he strives to strike that balance between giving enough background for new readers to understand what’s going on and not so much that it alienates those who have read the five previous books. As usual, he succeeds.
Even so, longtime readers will get more bang for their buck, not only in the references to previous books in the Old Man’s War series but also to some of the recurring characters: Gen. Tarsem Gau, Hafte Sorvalh (one of my personal favorites), Ambassador Ode Abumwe (who is seriously one of the most badass people—and the fact she’s a woman just makes it even better), and Colonial Defence Forces Lt. Harry Wilson, to name a few.
“The End of All Things” includes all the hallmarks of Scalzi SF: snark, feels, weird aliens, and fierce battles—plus political machinations and food for thought, all rolled into 349 pages. It picks up where “The Human Division” left off. Humanity faces a universe of aliens all seemingly bent on our destruction—or, rather, the destruction of the Colonial Union, the government formed to protect humans from annihilation. The CU, however, has been using Earth as a farm for colonists and soldiers—and Earth has put its foot down and said not one more. “The End of All Things” deals with the interaction between the Colonial Union, Earth, an inclusive United Nations-type organization called the Conclave, and a shadow group called the Equilibrium that wants to destroy the Conclave and the Colonial Union.
Diversity is woven throughout “The End of All Things” in a way that seems effortless but has to be intentional. Women, people of color, and LGBT people populate the the universe: They’re in positions of power; they’re background characters; they move through the world seamlessly. Diversity in this universe just is; Scalzi is thoughtful about both his portrayal of diverse characters and their inclusion in all types of roles. There is even a species of alien that recognizes five genders: male, female, zhial, yal, and neuter. As Hafte notes about a pilot, “Aul was zhial, and ze liked zis pronouns accurately stated. I would too, in zis position.”
(Very minor spoilers follow here, friends. Feel free to skip to the end if you want to avoid them.)
The first novella, “The Life of the Mind,” focuses on our friend the brain in the box, Rafe Daquin. The way Rafe comes to terms with no longer having a body is perfect. The fear and the description of the complete lack of anything are spot on; at one point, he notes, “I can’t taste my mouth”—and just how brilliant is that. Rafe manages to keep his sense of humor, even as he learns to contend with what not having a body will mean—and why this was done to him in the first place.
There’s also a bit where Rafe describes the shoddy programming, lax security, and all-around piss-poor surveillance that eventually allows him to turn the tables on his captors; the sarcasm and irritation go a long way to humanizing what’s essentially an organ floating in a fluid-filled container.
“This Hollow Union” follows Hafte Sorvalh, an incredibly tall alien with a terrifying smile. She calls herself the second most powerful being in the universe; she’s high up in the command structure of the Conclave, second only to General Gau himself.
The Conclave itself is in a state of chaos, reacting to internal and external forces bent on tearing it apart. The coalition of alien forces has divided into factions, mostly over what to do with those pesky humans.
There’s also a ginormous plot twist that took me completely by surprise. (My notes actually devolve into a lot of cursing at this point, to be honest.)
The third novella, “Can Long Endure,” hooks you right from the first: “It was Tuesday, and we had to murder a revolution.”
The narrator, CDF Lt. Heather Lee, will be familiar to readers of “The Human Division”; she was one of the captured soldiers in the novella “The Sound of Rebellion.” This time, she’s leading a squad tasked with keeping some CU planets from declaring independence. She’s sent around the ‘verse putting out fires in a civil war no one seems to want to find the root causes for. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t always go to plan.
Lt. Lee is such a fascinating character, and her arc from “The Human Division” through “The End of All Things” is equally enthralling. I don’t know that we’ll see her pop up again, but I’d love to follow her story.
Things start to unravel and come together in different ways in this novella, driving inexorably toward the conclusion.
Finally, “To Stand or Fall,” CDF Lt. Harry Wilson—and certified smooth talker—is back, y’all.
In “The Human Division,” Wilson saves the life of an American diplomat, Danielle Lowen, who happens to be the daughter of the Secretary of State. There’s a bit where people constantly recognize him as the guy who saved some bigwig’s daughter—and he always points out that she’s a diplomat in her own right—that I just love.
But this story ties together the plots of the previous three novellas and drives the conclusion of the novel. Oh, and three women—including one alien and one woman of color—just happen to save the day.
I would absolutely highly recommend this book to anyone who’s a fan of snark, science fiction that isn’t super heavy on the science, and inclusive writing where it doesn’t seem like the author wants a cookie for having a couple of women and people of color running around. Whether you’ve read the previous books or not, “The End of All Things” is a great, quick read that will have you reaching back for the novel that began it all, “The Old Man’s War.”
TL;DR: Just pick up this book, OK?