Some writers are prolific. A better adjective for John Scalzi might be "possessed." You'd think he'd have his hands full churning out novels at a machine-gun pace, editing magazines, maintaining two hugely popular blogs, and being SF's favorite sitcom dad. Yet he soldiers on, evidently genetically engineered for perfect tirelessness. I suspect that instead of sleeping, he has something like an iPod charger that he inserts in a Cronenberg-like body socket, after which he emerges a couple of hours later fresh as a daisy, with another 100,000 words of writing raring to go.
The Last Colony is Scalzi's fourth novel in less than three years, and it completes the trilogy begun with Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades. This time the focus is less on those Heinleinesque battle scenes and more upon the consequences of playing politics with people's lives. John Perry and Jane Sagan — he the formerly heavily-modded supersoldier of the Colonial Defense Force, she the super-dupersoldier genetically designed right from the lab — have retired to an unassuming agricultural colony with fresh, unmodified bodies and an adopted daughter, Zoe, now a teenager. An unwelcome visit from a former commanding officer leads to an offer that their innate wanderlust makes it hard for them to refuse. They become the administrators of a new human colony, Roanoke. Trouble manifests itself quickly enough.
It doesn't take long to learn that the colony is little more than a political football. The Colonial Union, representing spacefaring humanity away from the isolated Earth, is openly defying a decree by the Conclave, a consortium of alien worlds that have forbidden any colonization efforts by non-Conclave worlds, and have the combined military might of each of those worlds to back it up. It's a huge game of chicken between the Conclave and humanity, with the Union, seeing humanity's very existence threatened, hoping to use Roanoke to goad the Conclave into a military trap. Meanwhile, the only people who seem to give a shit about the lives of the actual men, women, and children on Roanoke are Perry, Sagan, and the colonists themselves.
The Last Colony is largely an exegesis on imperialism, and how expansionist politics ultimately serve to perpetuate the notion of imperialism for its own sake instead of looking out for the welfare of the actual people it presumes to serve. Whatever the rhetoric, in the end it all comes down to power in the hands of a very few people. Perry's focus on forging new policies of cooperation over endless conflict is not just revolutionary, but seen as outright impossible in such a context.
This book isn't quite as smooth as the previous two. For one thing, anyone who reads Scalzi's blog The Whatever (and that's a huge number of people) will instantly note that there's something more than a little Mary Sue-ish about his depiction of the John/Jane/Zoe nuclear family. We may forgive him. Who wouldn't want to see his wife take out an entire platoon of hostile aliens armed only with a knife? And I did like the inner turmoil Jane Sagan continues to feel as the result of her indeterminate pseudo-humanity. It's an effective way of carrying over the identity theme from Old Man's War. But then adding a character named Stross is just a wee bit on-the-nose, wouldn't you say?
Also, there's an odd storytelling gaffe in that, in the book's first half, the colony finds itself victimized by a heretofore unknown species of vicious aborigines that resemble — and come to be called — werewolves. After a harrowing action scene, this whole plot thread basically stops, with no resolution. The werewolves just go away and attack no more once Scalzi decides to move ahead with the main plot involving the Conclave in the book's second half. This gives the book a regrettable missed opportunity. How much cooler would the climax have been if the werewolves had decided to reappear right on top of everything else hitting the fan?
What does work, and quite well, is the portrayal of the mundane, daily crises that an emerging colony must endure, and the relationships between those on whom the survival of hundreds of people relies. Perry has his own political rivals on Roanoke. Rather than draw those conflicts out in black and white terms, Scalzi gives each supporting character a lot of nuance. And this lends much authenticity to the way he shows them compromising and working together. I also found the political machinations of the Colonial Union entirely convincing, especially in the way that the best laid plans never seem to go as expected in wartime. Politicians — whether in the CU or in Washington — never seem to figure out that the enemy hasn't read their script, and wouldn't particularly see fit to follow it even if they had. Scalzi's treatment of his aliens has an appealingly retro flavor as well. There was something distinctly Poul Andersonish about his characterization of the Conclave's General Gau, for one.
While there's no scene here that quite amps up the adrenaline like the climax of The Ghost Brigades, readers will find The Last Colony a nice place to visit. But with those werewolves still lurking around, you wouldn't want to live there.