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Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (Series, #1)

September 12, 2014 3 comments

A line of spaceships head toward a planet.Summary:
John Perry joined the Colonial Defense Force on his 75th birthday.  Americans aren’t allowed to be colonists in outer space, but they can defend the colonies in the outer space army.  Old folks join for many reasons from boredom to having always wanted to see outer space, even though details of what goes on out there are kept secret from Earth.  In spite of all the secrecy, the rumor is that those who join the CDF get to be young again, and who wouldn’t want a second chance at life?

Review:
Multiple friends have read this book and loved it, and of course I found the idea intriguing, who wouldn’t?  So when a friend offered to loan me his copy, I took him up on it right away.  I was not disappointed in the world Scalzi has created, it is endlessly fascinating, but the main character’s arc failed to be quite so interesting to me.

I can’t imagine how anyone would not find the basic premise of this book interesting.  Outer space colonies that are kept a mystery from Earth.  Only certain countries allowed to colonize (primarily those suffering from population overload). Top it off with a colonial army made entirely up of old people who supposedly get to be young again?  Completely. Fascinating.  And Scalzi really comes through on the science of all of this, the politics, and manages to have some surprises in there, in spite of the what seems to be very straight-forward book summary.  And the world beyond the soldiers and the colonists is utterly fascinating as well.  The aliens are incredibly creatively imagined, not just in their looks but in their cultures.  They feel real.  And that extends to the battles and spaceships as well.  The worldbuilding here is phenomenal.  It is an example of how scifi worlds should be built.

The main character, though, as well as his character development arc, fail to live up to the incredible worldbuilding.  John Perry, from early on, is talented at war, in spite of having only been an advertising slogan writer for his whole life.  He has no real life experience that would make one think he would be good at war. Additionally, even when he is doing battle, he’s kind of flat on the page.  He doesn’t jump off as the leader he supposedly is supposed to naturally be.  Other characters feel that way, but not John.  In fact, I frequently found myself far more interested in the secondary characters around John than in John himself.  I was willing to give this a bit of a pass since, well, the character has to live for us to continue to see the wars he’s fighting, and maybe Scalzi has a thing for unlikely heroes.  But his character arc takes an odd turn at the end that really bothered me.

*spoiler warning*
John meets a special forces woman who is in his dead wife’s body.  Basically, his dead wife’s DNA was used as a base to build a genetically enhanced body. Ok, I’m fine with that, even if it seems unnecessary. But then John becomes obsessed with her, and she with him, even though she is very clearly NOT his wife.  Then at the end, he asks her to move to a colonial farm with him when they retire. And she says yes. Whaaaaat?! This isn’t romance; this is gross! The special forces woman has as much in common with John’s wife as her sister would at this point, since they have messed with the DNA so much.  This is like John pursuing his dead wife’s sister, who is emotionally only 6, since she was put into a fully adult body 6 years ago and had no life prior to that.  It’s gross. It is not romantic.  And I really think the reader is supposed to see it as romantic, when instead it squicked me out far more than any of the aliens in the book, including the ones with slimy appendages or the ones who eat humans.
*end spoilers*

Overall, this is an utterly fascinating scifi world with a bit of a ho-hum main character.  The ending may disappoint some readers, and Scalzi’s politics can come through a bit obviously sometimes.  However, those at all intrigued by the plot summary or interested in high quality scifi world building should check it out.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Borrowed

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Book Review: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi (Audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton)

October 11, 2012 2 comments

Man standing next to an alien creature.Summary:
Jack Halloway–disbarred lawyer now contracted prospector on the planet Zarathustra–just wants to collect his massive amount of money from discovering a large sunstone vein.  He seems to be doing fairly well at finagling ZaraCorp into giving him the sizable portion of the profits that he totally deserves, but one day some local creatures that he dubs Fuzzies invite themselves into his home.  Small and cat-like, only with hands, the Fuzzy family quickly endear themselves to him.  When he shows them to his ex-girlfriend, a biologist, she starts to suspect that they are sentient. And sentience would mean a cessation of all mining on the planet.  What’s a morally ambiguous guy to do?

Review:
I picked this up for three reasons.  1) It was on sale at Audible. 2) I read John Scalzi’s The Android’s Dream and found it hilarious. 3) It’s narrated by Wil Wheaton.  It is certainly an entertaining read, but I must admit it was not quite up to the level that I was expecting from a Scalzi/Wheaton collaboration.

This book is interestingly a reimagining of a YA series written in the 1960s (starting with Little Fuzzy).  I have not read the original but I can tell you that this is not a YA book.  It is definitely your more general adult scifi.  Scalzi explains this as a tradition in scifi movies and tv shows that he thinks should also be carried out in books.

Scalzi’s writing is humorous, although, with the exception of the first couple of chapters, not to the laugh out loud level found in The Android’s Dream.  I particularly enjoy how good he is at giving personality to non-human characters, such as the Fuzzies and Jack’s dog.  The first half of the book is hilarious and well-plotted, complete with adorable aliens, a dog who can trigger explosives, and velociraptor-like native creatures to add to the danger factor.  The second half of the book, though, falls into this void of courtroom proceedings.  I know some people enjoy reading that, but it felt so stark and lacking in life compared to the much more fun first half that included things like the Fuzzies making sandwiches from Jack’s limited Earth supplies.  I’m not really a courtroom procedural reader myself, and frankly the two halves of the book almost felt like two separate books entirely.  I’m not sure what else could be done, though, since the basic plot is proving the sentience of the Fuzzies, which given the parameters of the world that this takes place in, can basically only happen in the courtroom.

As an animal rights advocate, I appreciated the basic storyline that just because you can’t hear creatures communicating doesn’t mean they don’t have relationships and caring amongst themselves.  I wasn’t a fan of the way that sentience was determined with such a human bias or that killing a Fuzzy is only considered truly heinous if it is established that they are sentient.  I would have preferred an ultimate conclusion rejecting speciesism, rather than the quite conservative focus on proving the human-like qualities of the Fuzzies.

Wil Wheaton’s narration was great for the first half of the book.  It’s Wil Wheaton. If you’re not sure if his acting style is for you, just look up his scenes in The Big Bang Theory.  I found his narration very similar to his appearances there.  My one complaint is a bit of a spoiler, so consider yourself warned.  His voice for Papa Fuzzy really grated on my nerves.  It was just so….blech. And not adorable Fuzzy-like.  Otherwise though, he’s a good match for Scalzi’s work.

I don’t often comment on the cover, but I must say that I don’t think that this cover does the book justice.  I particularly dislike it when a cover tries to draw out an alien creature that frankly comes across as much more adorable within the book.  Also, even the background of the planet itself doesn’t look right.

Overall, this is a witty piece of scifi with adorable alien creatures that call to mind websites like Cute Overload.  I recommend it to fans of scifi who also enjoy some courtroom proceedings in their reading.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi

November 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Android dreaming of sheep.Summary:
People think Harry Creed is squandering his talents, but he actually quite enjoys his job working for the UNE breaking bad news to various sentient alien races residing on Earth.  Still, he doesn’t mind doing a favor for his old friend, Ben Javna, who calls up saying the lizard race, the Nidu, need a specific breed of sheep for the coronation ceremony, and it’s vital in keeping the peace between the two planets that Earth help provide one.  Creed doesn’t think this will be much of a challenge, but he soon finds up he’s signed up for more than he bargained for, running into everything from The Church of the Evolved Lamb, to a Nagch who digests his victims alive, to other computer geniuses, to scandal within the UNE.

Review:
This is one of those scifi political intrigue books crossed with Douglas Adams style humor.  I don’t usually do political intrigue in scifi, since I avoid politics like the plague in real life, but the Douglas Adam style humor manages to make it all actually interesting and intriguing.

It’s impossible not to enjoy all of the very strongly developed characters, whether they’re a villain or not.  Frankly, that’s a good thing, as it’s rather hard to tell half the time who’s the villain and who isn’t (with the exception of Creek of course).  The alien sentient species imagined are rather traditional in appearance, but not so much in behavior, which keeps them interesting.  For instance, the Nidu are able to communicate through smell in addition to speech, and this tends to lead to problems on Earth.  Even very minor characters who are only in the story for a few pages are so crisply described, that it is impossible not to imagine them as clearly as if it was a film.  In fact, the whole book reads rather like a scifi action film in the style of The Fifth Element.

The action sequences are universally stunning.  There is one shoot-out scene in a mall, in particular, that also incorporates equipment from a futuristic game, reminiscent of Ender’s Game that left me grinning with joy at the sheer awesomeness of it.  The social commentary in the form of The Church of the Evolved Lamb is also fun.  This is a religion that knows that its founder was a fraud, but has decided to attempt to make his prophecies come true anyway.  It makes for some really wild moments.

That said, sometimes the political intrigue itself was a bit hard to follow.  I’m still rather confused as to what exactly was going on, politically, in the middle of the book.  I think I’d have to re-read it to figure that out, exactly.  I think the fact that I didn’t get confused at all in The Dark Tower series, but did here says something.  Still though, the humor and action sequences kept the plot moving enough that the political intrigue didn’t really matter that much anyway.

Overall, if you enjoy humorous scifi in the style of Douglas Adams, you will definitely enjoy this book.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Coop

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