A book is written for an audience of many. A diary is written — usually — for an audience of one. John Scalzi has delivered an interesting exercise in trying to meld these two disparate approaches to writing in his novella The Sagan Diary. This story has been published as a special edition volume by the estimable small press Subterranean (for whom Scalzi has done some editing), and is the result of Scalzi's own contributions to an endowment in honor of the late fantasy writer John M. Ford. It's a tale in the Old Man's War universe, designed to bridge events between The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony. If you're not already a fan of those books, it's not for you.
As the title indicates, the story takes the form of a personal diary by character Jane Sagan, a member of the Ghost Brigades, genetically engineered super-warriors "born" as physical adults into a world that requires them for one purpose only. Scalzi's novels in this series have used this premise to explore questions of identity, free choice, and the nature of humanity. Bizarrely, Scalzi has a handful of fairly vocal critics who incorrectly think, because his storytelling is so openly influenced by Heinlein, that these are supposed to be political novels, and who then go on to slag him for not doing a good enough job of writing what he's not trying to write. The Sagan Diary ought to make things abundantly clear: Scalzi uses military SF to explore humanist — not political — themes.
On its own terms, The Sagan Diary is every bit as uneven as, well, a diary. Throughout the narrative, we observe Jane coming to terms with all that her brief life has thrown at her: ruminations on war, facing and conquering fear, her own lack of a childhood, and her eventual love for John Perry (whose late wife's DNA formed the template for Jane's engineered body) and decision to give up her fancy, militarily modded-out physique and re-up as a normal homo sapien.
Diaries are often full of pretentious, self-indulgent prose, and we get a great deal of this as the book opens. Jane begins with an explication of the art of communication itself that is rife with nonstop, tortured metaphors ("the flower of thought and the fruit of the mouth," "golems who write the words of life on my forehead," "a vine to filigree your memory of who I was..."). One might be forgiven for wondering at first if The Sagan Diary really ought to be called The Sagan LiveJournal. If anything, Scalzi accurately captures the kind of writing one does when you're your own audience. It's only as the book enters into its second half that we get some truly heartfelt and moving passages. One lesson John Scalzi the writer could teach Jane Sagan the writer is the old keep-it-simple-stupid rule. The single sentence that opens the fourth chapter, "Friendship," contains more visceral power than all of the prose flourishes of chapter three, which hits us over the head with such poetry-notebook wankery as "Let me speak your name and in speaking let me sing, a secret melody whose notes rise like birds and fall into your ears..." I could swear that's a Celine Dion lyric.
It all gets much, much better in the last few chapters, when Jane talks about sexual intimacy (a subject you'd think would be at high risk for the worst sort of indulgent writing, but which John treats with the directness and earthy humor we've come to expect from him), the conquest of fear, and her quite moving expressions of love for Perry.
Short and sweet, this attractively produced little volume — handsomely and non-intrusively illustrated by Bob Eggleton — is a treat for the enthusiastic online fan base that has supported Scalzi all the way onto one final Hugo ballot and a Campbell victory. Quibbles about style aside, The Sagan Diary reinforces the humanism of Scalzi's earlier books, and leaves you with a simple message. This is your life. Live it.