Fiction Reviews

The Last Colony

(2007) John Scalzi, Tor (US), 6.99 / US$6.99 / Can$8.99, pbk, 324 pp, ISBN 978-0-330-45712-5


At last (late 2008) we have John Scalzi's final novel in the 'Old Man's War' trilogy over here in good old Blighty: the first two being Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades.  To be quite honest you really do need to read the first two to pick up on the principal protagonists and the background to their universe.  Consequently I will assume that you have and so the following contain some minor spoilers for those yet to have come across this trilogy.  Conversely if you have not read these earlier books then check out the reviews of the previous two (see afore title links) and note that Old Man's War was short-listed for a Hugo Award for 'Best Novel' (in the end Spin won that year).

The Last Colony begins with war veterans John and Jane Perry now in their new life as village ombudsman and police constable on a colony world.  But it is not long before the Colonial Defence Forces come calling, they want the two to head up a new colony which uniquely has colonists from a number (and not just one) human world. In the mix are a religious order of pacifists who also are adverse to using high technology.  This is not the only odd thing about the proposed new colony: the colony starter supply manifest includes a surplus of material and equipment and much of this surplus is based on mid-twentieth or earlier technology.

Oddity becomes fundamentally unnerving when the colony ship jumps to the colony system: it is the wrong system!  Worse, the ship's computer cannot tell them where they are and without this navigational knowledge they cannot jump back to their starting point.  Worse still they then get a briefing that all this was deliberate: a colony must be established on the planet below and it must survive despite there being a fleet of warships from an alien co-operative out to track them down and halt all further human expansion.  In short this lost colony could quite easily become the last colony...

Once again John Scalzi has crafted an easy-to-read, fast-paced adventure.  If The Ghost Brigade could be described as having elements of battle-hardened Joe Haldeman, plus space-operatic Jack McDevitt with the pacing of Robert Sawyer, then The Last Colony is a McDevitt/Sawyer hybrid. Having said that, there are military sequences (but not from the grunt perspective) of the sort Old Man's War provides.

Readers of the first two books will realise that Scalzi has this habit of pulling an alien technological rabbit out of the hat to save the day. Fortunately he does this sparingly and does so sparingly (once) again in The Last Colony.  Having said that I find that it does undermine the strength of his SF writing: good SF novels to my mind set up a logical framework and then give you a puzzle or problem to solve.  Having a rule-change with a get-out of jail free card tucked up your sleeve is a bit of a cheat.

Again from my personal perspective, I felt that the first half of the book was the more compelling.  The alien life on the colony world begins to come into its own and I was hoping that this would be worked into the trilogy's broader xenobiological narrative which itself has some relevance to our current real world situation with regards recently developed nations competing with economic leaders on the World stage.  Alas this alien life interlude was just that, a stand-alone interlude that was not resolved but sits like a small island within the novel's structure.  Of course it may be that this will be the subject of a later book?  If it is we may have to wait as in an afterword John Scalzi tells us he is leaving this universe for the foreseeable future to write other stories.

So do I recommend The Last Colony?  Yes, I believe on balance I do.  It is a solid adventure yarn in its own right and does round off the trilogy with there being a clear sense of story arc conclusion.  Having said that, it is not as gripping and packed with a sense of wonder as the Hugo-winning first in the series that I do clearly recommend and which once read will lead you ultimately to this story.

Jonathan Cowie

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