I’m having a hard time figuring out how to write this review. I may as well point out that I had to go back and look through my Audible receipts to find out when I’d bought the book. It was August 2015, but—as of March 2016—I still hadn’t written a review on Goodreads. That makes it the only book (out of over 100) that I forgot to review in 2015. I knew I’d read it—and the vague impression of being let down remained—but that was basically it.
As a reader, it seems like in a way John Scalzi was intent on smothering his own creation with The End of All Things. He burst onto the sci-fi scene with Old Man’s War in 2005. It was a great book: well written and accessible, full of exciting and adventure, clearly benefiting from deep sci-fi roots but also subtly critical of clichés and tropes that had come before.
Most people missed that last bit, however. They saw a book with a raw recruit entering the space marines fighting hordes of aliens to defend essentially defenseless human colonies and thought: aha! Starship Troopers! And so all the Scalzi-as-Heinlein comparisons began. But if anyone actually paid attention to Scalzi’s writings, they would have seen that if anything, he was writing the anti-Starship Troopers.
Starship Troopers has been both entertaining and enraging readers since it was published in 1959. See, for example, the “Controversy” subsection of its Wikipedia entry, which lists allegations of militarism, fascism, utopianism, and racism. The allegations of militarism and fascism are the strongest, and—what’s more interesting—they continue to set the agenda for a lot of military sci-fi being published literally to this day. One of the most important elements of the setting of Starship Troopers is to have an enemy with whom peace, compromise, or even conversation is impossible. Taking everything but violence off the table means that the only virtues that matter in the world of Starship Troopers are military virtues. Two of the novels I reviewed as part of the 2016 Hugo Review employ the exact same tactic: Marko Kloos’ Angles of Attack and Joshua Dalzelle’s Warship.
Now, my point isn’t to slam Starship Troopers. Like all of Heinlein’s politics, the truth is more complex than his fans or foes like to admit. The point is simply this: lots of people dislike Heinlein (and Starship Troopers in particular) because of its perceived militarism and fascism. A close reading of Old Man’s War would indicate that Scalzi is, to at least some degree, among those critics.
Unfortunately for Scalzi, the readers missed the point. Interestingly, it’s not the first time someone has set out to critique Starship Troopers only to have their critique soar over the heads of the audience. The same thing happened with the book’s 1997 film adaptation, as Calum Marsh argued in a 2013 piece for The Atlantic:
When Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers hit theaters 16 years ago today, most American critics slammed it. In the New York Times, Janet Maslin panned the “crazed, lurid spectacle,” as featuring “raunchiness tailor-made for teen-age boys.” Jeff Vice, in the Deseret News, called it “a nonstop splatterfest so devoid of taste and logic that it makes even the most brainless summer blockbuster look intelligent.” Roger Ebert, who had praised the “pointed social satire” of Verhoeven’s Robocop, found the film “one-dimensional,” a trivial nothing “pitched at 11-year-old science-fiction fans.”
But those critics had missed the point. Starship Troopers is satire, a ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism. The fact that it was and continues to be taken at face value speaks to the very vapidity the movie skewers.
Old Man’s War wasn’t satire. The primary point of the book wasn’t just to skewer Starship Troopers in particular or attack militarism/fascism in general. But it did have the same critical hostility towards militarism/fascism and—by extension—the same implied critique of Starship Troopers as the 1997 film adaptation. As with the film, however, the audience completely missed the point. The fun parts of Scalzi’s writing—the awe with which his main character viewed his trip into space and all the gee-whiz gadgetry—came through loud and clear. But the foreshadowing that the Colonial Union were not necessarily the good guys their propaganda promised, and the doubts about the justness and rightness of humanity’s shoot first, ask questions never approach to interplanetary foreign policy somehow got lost. Even though, honestly, it wasn’t that subtle. More than 10 years after reading it, I still remember one short scene where the space marines are fighting an alien race who are physically tiny compared to humans, and so in essence they are just stomping around an alien city like overgrown Godzillas, literally grinding the enemy under their boots, when one of the fighters has a mental breakdown at what they’re being asked to do. How folks managed to read this book and still say, essentially, “Scalzi is the next Robert Heinlein!” is beyond me, but they did.
So Old Man’s War was a brilliant book, and it should have won the Hugo in 2006, and Scalzi’s follow up The Ghost Brigades was also very strong. But soon thereafter, the series started to lose direction and focus. Lots of folks criticized Zoe’s Tale as basically just a for-profit retcon of the deus ex machina ending to The Last Colony, and—from reading Scalzi’s blog—I got the impression that this irked him. Finally, there was the fact that there’s something awkward about a person who is so forceful in his support of social justice causes—especially diversity in sci-fi’s community, authorship, and characters—having such a break-out success with an absolutely conventional military sf novel featuring a straight, white, cis-male, all-American character running around being a hero and blowing up aliens.
Starting with The Sagan Diary and The Human Division, I got the impression that Scalzi was compensating for his audience’s failure to get the point of his story so far. Instead of subtle and nuanced criticism of the Colonial Union, they started to be depicted so blatantly as scheming political con-artists that it got a little cartoonish. Meanwhile, in contrast to the military sci-fi trope of mindless, voiceless enemies, Scalzi made the most intelligent, well-spoken, and moral character the leader of the alien consortium that united to oppose the reckless, greedy, expansionist United States, uh, I mean Colonial Union. Lastly, Scalzi’s original main character, John Perry, got pushed farther and farther to the margins in favor of a more diverse cast of human characters.
None of these things are wrong. In fact, all of them are interesting and fit with Scalzi’s original vision (as I see it) for the Old Man’s War universe. The problem is that if you were able to catch onto all these things in the first book, then by the time Scalzi got finished turning the dial to 11 to make himself clear in the last book—The End of All Things—you felt like he was sort of shouting in your ear. More than that, it just felt like Scalzi had already moved on to other things. It’s hard to put a finger on, but I’d say one specific element would be the fact that there are no interesting innovations after The Ghost Brigades. Old Man’s War had a big idea: putting geriatric retirees in a brand new bodies to create an elite fighting force. The Ghost Brigades had another big idea: we’ve got consciousness-transfers (for the new bodies), but what if some of the consciousness don’t go into bodies? But I don’t recall a single big idea or innovative concept in The Human Division or The End of All Things. To me, that feels like investment had stopped, and now we’re just going through the motions until we can say the story is over.
There’s some extra-textual evidence of this too. Some of the works that came after Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades—like the humorous Android’s Dream or the much more social justice aware Locked In—seemed to indicate where Scalzi preferred to be go as a writer. Then again, he also contributed to a John Ringo Black Tide Rising short fiction anthology, so what do I know?
So the speculation is just that: speculation. As a reviewer, all I can really say is how the book felt to me. And to answer that: it felt like I was watching the setup for the climactic battle of a great movie when suddenly the house lights come up and the theater staff moves in to start sweeping up the popcorn. The movie keeps on rolling, the fight plays out, and technically I can keep watching, but it just feels like the movie has ended before it was actually over. Not only did John Scalzi overcompensate to correct the audience’s failure to grasp the political subtleties of the first couple of books, but in the end I just felt like he ran out of interest before he finished writing the books.