Short works

Books : reviews

John Scalzi.
Agent to the Stars.
Tor. 2005

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 7 February 2010

I was a bit hesitant to read this. Scenario: author has gained fame, goes back and publishes his first novel (originally written in 1999, slightly updated for intervening events). First novels can be a bit gruesome. This isn't: I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Tom Stein is an up-and-coming Hollywood agent, who has just negotiated a career changing contract for one of his clients, when he's called into his fearsome boss's office. There he's stunned to discover he has a new client: the alien Yherajk, who want to make contact with Earth, and realise that they need an agent to do so. How can Tom "sell" to humanity an alien race who look like a bucket of something disgusting, and smell worse? Fortunately they are very moral, very patient, and have a sense of humour.

There's great humour here, but it's not broad slapstick: it just emerges from the bizarre situation Tom finds himself in, the even more bizarre egos of some of Tom's more human clients, the fact that the aliens have learned Earth culture from our TV broadcasts (and realise that this is a problem), and the sheer silliness of the movie industry. And it's not all comedy: there are also some truly moving scenes. And a massive coincidence needed to resolve the plot.

John Scalzi.
The Android's Dream.
Tor. 2006

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 12 September 2010

Earth is a lowly member of the interstellar Confederation, negotiating banana quotas with the Nidu, when diplomat Moeller ignites an interstellar incident, by farting. From such small beginnings events spiral out of control, as the Nidu demand compensation in the form of a rare breed of genetically engineered electric blue sheep, and other factions, both from Earth and from Nidu, are determined to make this fail, for a variety of reasons.

Very clever, mostly very funny, with the occasional lapse into grossness or seriousness, this is a great romp. The prose is a bit clunky in a few places (several consecutive sentences beginning with the same person's name, for example), but on the whole this just rips along. It's not just a bunch of unconnected gags: I love the way that many of the seemingly minor "decorative" events, there apparently just to add a bit of background detail, all suddenly become deeply significant and key, often in the most bizarre ways. The resolution is bizarre, clever, and unexpected.

John Scalzi.
Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: a decade of Whatever, 1998-2008.
Tor. 2008

John Scalzi.
The God Engines.
Subterranean Press. 2009

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 13 April 2014

Captain Ean Tephe is a man of faith, whose allegiance to his lord and to his ship is uncontested. The Bishopry Militant knows this—and so, when it needs a ship and crew to undertake a secret, sacred mission to a hidden land, Tephe is the captain to whom the task is given.

Tephe knows from the start that his mission will be a test of his skill as a leader of men and as a devout follower of his god. It’s what he doesn’t know that matters: to what ends his faith and his ship will ultimately be put—and that the tests he will face will come not only from his god and the Bishopry Militant, but from another, more malevolent source entirely…

The captive god that powers Captain Tephe’s starship is not the most cooperative, and needs to be whipped into obedience. Tephe thinks nothing of this, since he has faith in his own triumphant god. But when he is given a secret mission to gain new followers for his god, he learns something rather terrible.

This novella is not typical Scalzi in style (I certainly didn’t laugh at any point), but it is in quality. The plot unfold gradually, and appallingly, up to the shattering conclusion.

Scalzi plays the same game with the rook Shalle that Vonda McIntyre did with Meredith in Dreamsnake. I didn’t notice it there, but I did here. Maybe I’m more suspicious in my old age.

John Scalzi, ed.
Tor. 2009

A strange man comes to an even stranger encampment… A bouncer becomes the linchpin of an unexpected urban movement… A courier on the run has to decide whom to trust in a dangerous city… A slacker in a "zero-footprint" town gets a most unusual new job… And a weapons investigator uses his skills to discover a metropolis hidden right in front of his eyes.

Welcome to the future of cities. Welcome to METAtropolis.

More than an anthology, METAtropolis is the brainchild of five of science fiction’s hottest writers—Elizabeth Bear, Tobias S. Buckell, Jay Lake, Karl Schroeder, and project editor John Scalzi—who combined their talents to build a new urban future and then wrote individual stories in this collectively constructed world. The results are unique glimpses of a shared vision and a reading experience unlike any you’ve had before.

You’re at the city limits now. See what’s waiting inside.


Jay Lake. In the Forests of the Night. 2009
Tobias S. Buckell. Stochasti-city. 2009
Elizabeth Bear. The Red in the Sky is Our Blood. 2009
Utere Nihil non Extra Quiritationem Suis. 2009
Karl Schroeder. To Hie from Far Cilenia. 2009

John Scalzi.
Fuzzy Nation.
Tor. 2011

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 6 July 2012

Jack Holloway is a prospector, one of many working for the ZaraCorp mining corporation on Zarathustra. He makes a massive find that will guarantee him riches beyond his wildest dreams. Then he is befriended by some local wildlife, dubbed "fuzzies", and he gradually realises that the find will do them no good at all. And then ZaraCorp learn the fuzzies might even be sapients...

This is Scalzi's "reboot" of H. Beam Piper's 1962 novel, Little Fuzzy. Scalzi, a fan of the original, originally wrote this version for fun, "mostly to see what a version of Little Fuzzy by me would be like". It's a fun read, and a great page turner, but it does feel very 1960s. I don't mean in attitude of the characters, which is quite modern, but in density and complexity of the story, which feels a little thin. From a book written today, I would expect more world-building, more complexity: maybe more on the linguistics and psychology of the Fuzzies, or on the planetary ecology, or on the mining technology, or on the interstellar politics, or something. That is all in there, for sure, but rather thin: it's mostly a linear story of sapience discovery. So, a fun read, but not much more.

John Scalzi.
Tor. 2012

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 19 May 2013

Ensign Andrew Dahl is excited about his new posting, to the space ship UUC Intrepid. But when he gets there, everything seems a bit strange. His colleagues have elaborate ruses to hide from the bridge crew, so they are not sent on away missions. And the away missions have a surprising high fatality rate of the ensigns, and surprisingly lucky escapes of the bridge crew. Rather than hide as well, Dahl starts to investigate. The answers will change his life for ever, if only he can live long enough to find them.

This is fun. It makes great little digs at those plot holes in the SF series we know and love, spoofing them in story the same way Galaxy Quest did in film. It is clear what is going on quite soon, but Scalzi's resolution is imaginative and interesting. And then there are the unexpected codas, answering the traditionally unanswered questions.

John Scalzi.
The Kaiju Preservation Society.
Tor. 2022

They’re big, they’re bad. But they’re about to be extinct.

Jamie’s dream was to hit the big time at a tech start-up. Jamie’s reality is a humiliating lay-off, then a low-wage job delivering takeout. Things look beyond grim, until a chance delivery to an old acquaintance. Tom has a vacancy on his team: the pay is great and Jamie has debts. It’s an easy choice to make.

But Tom’s ‘animal rights organization’ is way more than it seems. In an alternate dimension, massive dinosaur-like creatures roam a tropical world – but they need support to survive. And the Kaiju Preservation Society wants to help. However, others want to profit. Unless they’re stopped, the walls between worlds could fall, and millions could die.

John Scalzi.
Lock In.
Gollancz. 2014

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 23 February 2016

Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. Most of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. A few suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And 1 per cent find themselves ‘locked in’ – fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.

It may not seem like a lot. But in the US that’s 1.7 million people ‘locked in’… including the President’s wife and daughter.

Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can fully restore the locked in, but two new technologies emerge to help. One is a virtual-reality environment, ‘The Agora’, where the locked in can interact with other humans. The second is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, allowing the locked in to occasionally use their bodies as if they were their own.

This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse…

A virulent new virus leaves one percent of its victims “locked in”, unable to move any voluntary muscles, but awake. New technology allows these people, Hadens, to control robot avatars, allowing them to participate in the world.

Chris Shane is a Haden with a rich and powerful father, but has chose to pursue a career as an FBI agent. First day on the job, with a new partner, and there’s a possible murder, with what turn out to be deep ramifications for all Hadens. And most of the rest of the Hadens are on strike, over the removal of their expensive subsidised care.

This is an interesting science fictional police procedural. We see all the action from Chris’s point of view, allowing us to experience both the downsides and the upsides of being a Haden, although some of the upsides are a consequence of being a rich Haden. The robot avatar idea has some parallels with the film Surrogates, but the world building and the plot here hold together much better, and better use is made of the possibilities of swapping robot bodies. And it turns out it might not be such a good idea to be an early adopter.

There’s potential for a whole series about Agent Chris and the Hadens. I’m hoping for more stories in this world.

John Scalzi.
Head On.
Tor. 2018

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 9 July 2018

To some left with nothing winning becomes everything

In a post-virus world, a daring sport is taking the US by storm. It’s frenetic, violent and involves teams attacking one another with swords and hammers. The aim: to obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. Gruesome? No – because the players have Haden’s syndrome. Unable to move, Haden’s sufferers use robot bodies, which they operate mentally. So in this sport anything goes, no one gets hurt – and crowds and competitors love it. Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.

But is it an accident? FBI agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann are determined to find out. In this game, fortunes can he made – or lost. And both players and owners will do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.

Hilketa is a violent sport, where the goal is to rip the head off the opposing team’s “goat” player. Not that violent, though: the players are all Hadens, controlling robot bodies. There is some feedback to give the players a little pain, just to keep them motivated. Nothing too extreme though. Nothing that would cause damage. Certainly nothing that would kill. So when a player drops dead in a game, and people start acting weird, Haden FBI Agent Chris Shane investigates.

This is the second Chris Shane tale, and it keeps up the standard of the first. The possibilities and politics of Haden robotic bodies are central to the plot: they aren’t just a vehicle to allow Chris to jump between bodies at will. It’s fortunate that Chris has wealthy and influential parents, as this does help unstick some otherwise sticky situations. This has the trademark Scalzi snarky snappy dialog, bags of action, and a cat.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the world-building develops in future stories, as non-Hadens also start to use the robot bodies.

John Scalzi.
Old Man's War.
Tor. 2005

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 20 October 2008

Ever wondered what Starship Troopers would be like with a Heinlein stage three protagonist, instead of a stage one? Wonder no more.

John Perry, widower for the last eight years, enlists in the Colonial Defense Forces on his 75th birthday. Whisked away from Earth with a load of other 75-year-olds, he is fixed up with a new younger fitter stronger greener body, put through boot camp, and sent out to fight aliens.

This is fast, frenetic, and fun -- with several very affecting moments. Perry is not naive, but a few of his fellow geriatrics are (or bigoted: age-hardened naivety). He learns quickly, but the universe is bigger, weirder, and more hostile than he can always cope with. The style is strangely flat -- even when the characters are discussing deeply-felt emotions -- and seems the more realistic and compelling for that. There's closure to this book, despite it being the beginning of a series.

John Scalzi.
The Ghost Brigades.
Tor. 2006

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 28 October 2008

Charles Boutin is a traitor to the human race, selling out to aliens and planning for war on Earth. The Colonial Union have only just discovered this, and they also discovered a recording of Boutin's consciousness, made immediately before he defected. So they grow a clone body, and download the recording. But it doesn't "take", and they are left with Jared Dirac, just another Special Forces soldier, who they send off to train for war. He does well, until Boutin's memories do begin to surface...

This is a direct sequel to Old Man's War: Jared ends up in Lt Jane Sagan's squad, and we see how Special Forces soldiers are trained (more Starship Troopers, but where the protagonist is essentially a child in a superhero's body). The plot trundles along in the expected way until Boutin's memories start to surface, then things become complicated, as it becomes apparent that the Colonial Union aren't being exactly open with everyone about what's going on in the universe.

There's very much a middle of trilogy feel to this. We've been introduced to the universe in the first book; now the plot is thickening sufficiently for the grand denouement. And we get to see some interesting aliens, and some interesting "humans". But I'm not totally convinced about what the Obin are lacking (or, if they really are, how they can have the reaction they do to that fact).

John Scalzi.
The Last Colony.
Tor. 2007

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 1 November 2008

John Perry and Jane Sagan, mustered out of the military, back in ordinary human bodies, have become colonists. They are happy being ombudsman and constable in their local town, when their old boss contacts them to persuade them to lead a new colony. John realises he's got itchy feet, so off they go. But things seem a little odd: the composition of the colonists, the ship's manifest; small things. When the colony ship arrives at the "wrong" planet, it becomes clear everyone has been conned: this is all a setup by the Colonial Union in their war against the aliens. And it soon becomes clear that everyone has their own plans for the success or failure of this colony.

This is a great finale to the trilogy (there is a fourth book to come in the same universe, but there is certainly closure at the end of this one). The gradual unfolding of plot within plot makes you wonder how things could possibly get worse, and then they do! Many small battles, cunning politics, and desperate stratagems are needed as John and Jane fight for their colony and their lives, and maybe even the lives of all humanity. Good stuff.

John Scalzi.
Zoe's Tale.
Tor. 2008

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 14 June 2009

John Perry and Jane Sagan adopted Zoe Boutin, daughter of traitor Charles Boutin, and object of reverence of the entire Obin species. Here, the events of The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony are retold from Zoe's PoV. As such, it helps fills in a few plot holes (such as what happened to Zoe when she went off to inform the alien leader about the assassination attempt). But the best thing is that it's not just a simple retelling: some things look very different from Zoe's PoV, and we get to explore her relationship with the Obin in much more depth. A worthwhile addition to the series.

John Scalzi.
The Human Division.
Tor. 2013

Our home planet would have been an easy conquest if not for the Colonial Union—the human spacefaring military organization that has defended our world for generations. But the CU kept many secrets until John Perry revealed them to Earth’s billions. The CU has fought an endless series of secret wars on (it claims) the Earth’s behalf, while relying on the home world to provide an unlimited supply of recruits who never return from space.

But there are alien races who seem inclined toward peace and trade instead of battle. Earth has been invited to join a new alliance of multiple worlds—an alliance against the Colonial Union. For the shaken and uncertain people ot Earth, the path ahead is far from clear.

With that choice hanging in the balance, managing the CU’s survival won’t be easy. It will take diplomatic finesse, political cunning … and a brilliant “B Team,” centered on the resourceful Lieutenant Harry Wilson—a team ready to deal with the unexpected things the universe throws at you when you’re struggling to preserve the unity of the human race.

John Scalzi.
The End of All Things.
Tor. 2015

John Scalzi.
The Collapsing Empire.
Tor. 2017

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 24 May 2017

In the far future, humanity has left Earth to create a glorious empire. Now this interstellar network of worlds faces disaster – but can three individuals save their people?

The empire’s outposts are utterly dependent on each other for resources, a safeguard against war, and a way its rulers can exert control. This relies on extra-dimensional pathways between the stars, connecting worlds. But ‘The Flow’ is changing course, which could plunge every colony into fatal isolation.

A scientist will risk his life to inform the empire’s ruler. A scion of a Merchant House stumbles upon conspirators seeking power. And the new Empress of the Interdependency must battle lies, rebellion and treason. Yet as they work to save a civilization on the brink of collapse, others have very different plans…

The human interstellar empire is known as the Interdependency, because each outpost is dependent on all the others. It was set up this way by family guilds, when the faster-than-light Flow network shifted and cut off the outposts from Earth. What the manoeuvring factions don’t know, and will deny when they do, is that the Flow is about to shift again, cutting off every outpost, meaning a slow death for them all. Is this the best time for an untrained and untested new Emperox to take the helm?

This is the first book in a new series from Scalzi. It is curiously galactic spanning and claustrophobic at the same time: each outpost, apart from End, is either a space station or a small colony on a hostile planet, set up where the Flow led. And we really only see two of them: End (a backwater dumping ground for malcontents, but the only inhabitable planet in the system) and Hub (a giant space station from which the Empire is ruled). And some of the concerns might mirror today’s problems: although not particularly heavy handed, it would be dense not to read the Flow changes and its denialists as a metaphor for climate change.

Being the first in a series, there’s a lot of set-up: the new Emperox, the scheming Noehamapeton family guild, and the foul-mouthed trader Lady Kiva. This set-up is achieved, not through exposition, but through plenty of action moving the plot along at a brisk pace, in Scalzi’s typical breezy style (he tries for Banksian spaceship names, but doesn’t quite pull it off), and a roller-coaster ride of assassination attempts and citrus fruit sales (oh ghod, I’ve only just realised that this subplot is literally a case of “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”). We are left teetering on the brink of a potential giga-death calamity. Given this is a new series, I was expecting a slower build-up: at this pace, the empire will have collapsed and been rebuilt by the middle of book two. Which I will be reading.

John Scalzi.
The Consuming Fire.
Tor. 2018

Will they listen – before it’s too late?

Humanity’s sprawling empire is on the verge of collapse. Its trading route route between the stars is vanishing, leaving planets stranded. Billions of lives will be lost unless desperate measures are taken. Emperox Grayland II, the lnterdependency’s ruler, is ready to take those measures. But even this may not be enough. Some believe the collapse of the Flow is a myth – or an opportunity to ascend to power.

For while Grayland pre cares fer disaster, others prepare for civil war. And this war will be fought in the halls of power, between titans of industry and places of worship as much as in space. Nothing about this power struggle will be straightforward … and all of human civilization is at stake.

John Scalzi.
The Last Emperox.
Tor. 2020

Can they escape the end of an empire?

The pathways that link the stars are collapsing faster than expected, accelerating the fall of civilization. But though the evidence is insurmountable, many are still in denial. Some even attempt to profit from the final days of this golden age.

Emperox Grayland II has wrested control of the Empire from her enemies. However, even as she works to save her people, others seek to topple her from the throne. Grayland and her remaining allies must use every tool at their disposal to save humanity, and themselves. Yet it still may not be «enough. Will Grayland achieve the impossible … or become the last emperox to wear the crown?