Ending up smack bang in the middle of a book series when all you thought you were doing was buying a standalone volume can be disconcerting.
But now when it’s John Scalzi and not when you’ve picked volume 6 in the Old Man’s War series, a space opera that spans the galaxy and pits humanity, split between Earth and the multi-planet Colonial Union, and the Conclave, a Federation-like gathering of 400 different alien species, against each other.
The genius of Scalzi’s easygoing and relatable style, which hooks you in well-nigh immediately and keeps you reading as if a warship is on your tail, is that he manages to take you into his expansive world with an expository ease that many other authors would envy.
Not for him clunky, heavy passages of over-explanatory text that threaten to drop through the floor of the space station you’re open, creating a hazardous vacuum to space; rather you are brought up to speed quickly and with a minimum of fuss by the delightfully laconic colloquial tones of Rafe Daquin, a Colonial Union pilot who finds himself in a rather invidious position at the start of the book.
A series of four linked novellas, all of which can conceivably stand on their own but which neatly tuck into and augment and amplify the other, The End of all Things centres on the covert actions of the nefarious Equilibirum which is hell bent on reducing the Colonial Union and the Conclave to historical relics and the Earth to a smoking ruin.
Not for them the niceties of diplomacy and public airing of grievances; instead like any cowardly guerilla group, they stay carefully shielded in the shadows, hidden from view, plotting and scheming and yes removing brains from bodies and doing things unspeakably unpalatable with them.
It is in many respects your quintessential space opera but one that comes with a fun, vibrant storytelling gait that doesn’t shirk on tension or heightened stakes but which feels like it’s happening to real people with a great deal to lose.
This is Star Trek without the polished tones and the hyper-conscious social niceties – not that I mind them of course; I am, after all, a Trekkie of longstanding thank you – and even when characters like Ambassador Abumwe from the Colonial Union or the Conclave’s head Hafte Sorvalh are speaking in their dulcet tones, there’s a sense of grittiness and realpolitik at work and it’s inordinately pleasing to read.
Much as I like grandly written sic-fi opuses, there’s something distinctly enjoyable of feeling you have stumbled upon a sci-fi book that mirrors the messiness and unpredictability of real life.
Or at least real life as it might be hundreds of years into a vast interstellar future.
Granted Scalzi does wrap things up nicely and neatly in the end but the getting there is an agonising journey of missteps and mistakes, of real people leaping to conclusions, of grievances acted upon without any thought of the greater good.
Just the way it happens now.
After all, what guarantee do we have that humanity and indeed any alien species out there will act nobly and with good conscience at all times simply because they have learnt how to slip loose the bounds of their planets and journey across the stars?
The ability to cross great distances of space doesn’t automatically make you a better being, just like driving cross country doesn’t always elevate the spirit or cleanse the soul, and Scalzi, gods bless him, recognises and champions that, giving us characters and situations that feel wonderfully realistic while still feeling altogether futuristic.
It is sci-fi with heart and soul and great dollop of the realm world, and even better it makes sense all by itself as the one volume or as part of a greater whole (which I must acquire henceforth and forthwith).
Just like the humans and aliens in this marvellously engaging and absolutely unputdownable story.