Friday Reviews: Unlocked by John Scalzi

Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome

John Scalzi

This short novella is a preview of Scalzi’s new novel, Lock In, about a plague in our near future. The story is told through interviews with government officials, reporters, scientists, and business people who were involved in fighting a mysterious, rapidly mutating disease called Haden’s Syndrome, named for the First Lady of the United States who becomes its most famous victim. It begins like any other disease in recent memory, such as SARS or the swine flu. Our interconnected world sends a mysterious flu-like bug around the world in days, which takes out a huge swath of the population. And like SARS and the various flu viruses that get away from doctors, many recover. Only it has a second “meningitis” stage, where victims relapse, this time with stiff necks and back and severe headaches. While fewer people who survive stage one reach stage two, the mortality rate is higher. If victims survive this stage, a third, more terrifying stage awaits some of the survivors: Lock in. (Hence the name of the upcoming novel.)

Haden’s syndrome locks its victims into their bodies. They are conscious, but unable to speak, unable to react, able only to respond in an MRI chamber where technicians can tell if they are responding yes or no.

The fight against this plague, which actually reverses population growth for a time, is described as a “moon shot.” The rich and powerful give everything because, as those interviewed point out, everyone is impacted. Scalzi illustrates what humans seem to do best: When the race’s back is against the wall, we seem to perform at our finest.

Thursday Reviews: The Mallet Of Loving Correction by John Scalzi

The Mallet of Loving Correction

John Scalzi

A best of the blog collection, Mallet covers the last decade of John Scalzi’s The Whatever, one of the most popular blogs on the Internet. For this collection, he picks the ones that have caused the most controversy in the comment sections. The title comes from Scalzi’s policy of deleting, often with a snarky explanation as to why, trolling comments. He refers to this as breaking out The Mallet of Loving Correction. Among other things, Scalzi…

  • Asserts his place in the geek hierarchy, telling a self-important CNN columnist that anyone can be a geek who wants to be.
  • Simply tells the nation’s far right that they’re bat shit insane and lays out why. (To be fair, he’s not all that easy on liberals, either.)
  • Live tweets Lord of the Rings because his daughter and wife are not home to stop him.
  • In one of the more touching entries, explains how his recently deceased dog demonstrated her unconditional love for this strange man that mommy seems so fond of. (That one made me tear up a little.)

I spent most of my time reading laughing out loud. Especially when he grades hate mail.

Thursday Reviews: The Human Division by John Scalzi

The Human Division

John Scalzi

John Scalzi returns to the Old Man’s War universe. At the end of both The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale, which had parallel plotlines, Earth found out that the Colonial Union was using humanity’s cradle as a farm for new colonists and soldiers. Well, you can imagine how well that went over.

Scalzi picks up the story in an unusual format. The story was released on ebook over a year formatted almost like a television series. The “episodes” alternated between the crew of the diplomatic vessel Clarke and happenings elsewhere in the universe. The main focus is on the Clarke, used by Ambassador Ode Abumwe and commanded by Captain Sofia Coloma. The main characters are Hart Schmidt, a junior diplomat who is often reduced to grunt duty assisting Lt. Harry Wilson, a technology specialist on loan from the Colonial Defense Forces. Wilson is green, super-enhanced, and came to the CDF as a 75-year-old man before they gave him a new body designed for the express purpose of kicking alien ass. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Wilson was one of John Perry’s fellow recruits in the original Old Man’s War.

It’s a dark universe out there. Four hundred races have banded together into something known as The Conclave, sort of like the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek, only not as happy to be there. The Conclave is formed to control competition for planets, which has resulted in more bloodshed than any known civilization has experienced before venturing into interstellar space. The Colonial Union isn’t having it, but when Earth suddenly cuts off relations with the CU, Colonial officials estimate the human race is only thirty years from extinction. So Abumwe and her assistants have to walk a fine line trying to get Earth either back into the Union, or, at least, talk them out of joining the Conclave, and making sure the Conclave knows they don’t want a war. All this time, the Colonials are looking for allies.

But someone doesn’t want them to have those allies. They are using missing Colonial ships controlled in a bizarre manner and CDF weapons to fake attacks on anyone – Colonial Union, the Conclave, aliens looking to make a deal. Even Earth is in their crosshairs, and it’s up to Schmidt and Wilson, the real stars of this unusual story, to figure out who. Do they find out?

Oh, now why would Scalzi do that? Then there would be no season-ending cliffhanger or a second season.

Thursday Reviews: Red Shirts by John Scalzi

Red Shirts

John Scalzi

You know those guys on the original Star Trek that died every week? The ones that went gurgle and crunch as something ate them or disappeared in a flash of ray gun blast? Those guys. The red shirts. Well, John Scalzi presents us with their point of view. And really, the red shirts on the good ship Intrepid don’t like being cannon fodder while Captain Abernathy, Science Officer Q’eeng, or perpetually wounded or infected Lt. Kerensky either come out of each away mission unscathed or heal with miraculous speed.  One crew member notices this happens to the crew of the Intrepid a lot more than it does to other ships in the Universal Union (the “Dub U” as its denizens call it) navy. Even the five always healthy or healing senior officers seem perfectly normal when their records prior to coming aboard the Intrepid are examined. In fact, the only ship anyone can find with a fatality record approaching the Intrepid‘s is the fictional Starship Enterprise. This prompts one red shirt to quip that they’re in a bad knock off of Star Trek. But one too many away missions gets at Ensign Andy Dahl, Red Shirts‘ main protagonist. Dahl sets out to learn why the Intrepid, with the exception of its five senior officers, is so incredibly unlucky. What he learns could have been an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Red Shirts is a wicked send-up of all those thundering cliche’s that drive fans of various television shows up a tree. Why is it always Decks 6 through 12 that suffer incredible damage? Why do control panels explode? Hasn’t twenty-something century technology evolved a better circuit breaker?  How does the lab come up with an almost perfect solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem with a senior officer finding the missing piece at the last possible second? And why do unknown crew members get killed at an alarming rate?

If anyone is qualified to call writers out on this – and make no mistake, writers do get called out on it – it’s John Scalzi, who served as creative consultant for Stargate: Universe for a season. And he wrote about science fiction movies for several years at, as well as authoring The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies. Oh, and he wrote a few science fiction novels.

While I’d like to see something more daring, like his fantasy novella, The God Engines, or his well-done Heinleinesque Old Man’s War series, Scalzi still never disappoints. The book is laced with Scalzi’s satirical humor and even turns that humor on the author himself in one late scene. (If you don’t catch it, reread the final chapter again.) Reading this one reminded me of another parody that did a fine job of walking the tightrope between tweaking Star Trek‘s nose while paying it and its fans proper respect. That would be Galaxy Quest. What seals this up in a bow are three present-day codas that aren’t so much parody as they are a bit poignant, including one woman learning she has a future counterpart and wondering why she hasn’t measured up to her future doppleganger’s yardstick.

Paging Tim Allen. I think we found you your sequel.

Fuzzy Nation By John Scalzi

Scalzi admits this book could have wound up being little more than a lengthy bit of fanfic. I say that because Scalzi admits he wrote this reboot of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy with no idea what would happen to it. Fortunately, Piper’s estate, who really had no say in the matter as the original fell into public domain, gave their blessing.  Good thing, too, because what Scalzi has written definitely pays its respects to the original. Fuzzy Nation owes its existence, even most of its elements, to Little Fuzzy, but these are not the same book or even part of the same story.

What’s happened is Scalzi has written a modern take on an old tale, no different than reboots of Batman and James Bond, or the new Sherlock Holmes movies. What it is not is a reboot along the lines of Battlestar Galactica, where the new show – good as it was – was almost unrecognizable from the original source.

But let me back up and explain the book on its own, as I’ve only read a synopsis of Piper’s original.  (Which means I could turn around and be completely outraged when I read the full text.)  Our protag, Jack Holloway, is a prospector on planet Zarathustra XXIII, an earthlike mining planet with no known sentient life. In his search for valuable minerals, Holloway manages to blow up an entire cliff. That does not please the Zarathrustra Corp representative, who terminates his contract. When Holloway sees that he has exposed a seam of sunstones, the rarest gem in the universe, he uses his now-unemployed status to claim the seam for himself – worth trillions – and get reinstated. Since Jake is an admitted asshole, he has no qualms screwing his employer.  Since he is a talented but disbarred lawyer, he has no trouble with the screwage.

With me so far?  Good. Turns out Zarathustra Corp’s heir apparent to the CEO’s job, Wheaton Aubrey VII, is on the planet and proceeds to lecture Holloway how his measly 2% stake is worth trillions, only to discover Holloway has already taken the company for more.  And he’s not finished.  He is, in fact, ready to take them for more. Which puts him afoul of ZaraCorp’s thuggish security drone, Joe DeLise, who soon spends a considerable amount of time trying to kill Holloway. This might be a spoiler, but fairly early in the book, DeLise begins doing a horrible job proving his innocence. I spent the rest of the book praying he’d come face to face with Zarathustra XXIII’s best known predator, the zararaptor, which views these alien interlopers as snack food. (It would not be a Scalzi book without someone somewhere considering humans as part of a nutritious breakfast, even if it’s the alien equivalent of a bear or a large jungle cat in this case.)  Does he?

Well, now, that’s a spoiler I’m not prepared to reveal.

What throws a monkey wrench into everyone’s schemes is the presence of several rather smart catlike creatures Holloway dubs “fuzzies.” (Hence the title of both the original and this book.) The fuzzies settle into Holloway’s home and proceed to do something no one would expect: Demonstrate sentience. They don’t speak, at least in anyway humans can detect, but they have a clear family unit and have taken a liking to his dog, the explosives-detonating wonderdog Carl.

When the fuzzies arrive, Holloway enlists the aid of Isabel, the company biologist and his ex-girlfriend. When she determines the fuzzies are, in fact, people, it hits the fan at ZaraCorp, since intelligent life means all mining stops on the planet. No ands, ifs, or buts.

The corporate trappings and workings of government are pure Scalzi, laced with a kind of pragmatic cynicism and sensibility that marks not only most of his fiction but his blog as well. Holloway is an anti-hero, someone who’d be at home in crime fiction, something I’ve accused Scalzi of in the past with The Android’s Dream. But Holloway, being likeably unlikeable, gives this book its sense of humor. The book does have a smart-ass tone, and Holloway, to the very end, denies an obvious streak of nobility he’d just as soon not know about.

I absolutely hated DeLise and had visions of the “Cupcake” from JJ Abrams Star Trek beating the living snot out of him.  Hell, I had visions of a few of my own characters beating the snot out of him, and some of them were my bad guys. DeLise has zero redeeming qualities, but believably so. He is one of those guys who is so angry at the world that he’s willing to kill just to make himself feel better.

Wheaton Aubrey VII (Gee, which former Star Trek actor inspired that name?) gave me problems. He’s supposed to be the young son of a CEO with an undeserved sense of entitlement and little regard for whether he’s killing the goose whose laying his golden eggs. I say he gave me problems because I kept picturing the older Carter Pewterschmidt III from Family Guy. They have the same personality. For that, I blame Seth McFarland. That said, he does come off as a cross between Pewterschmidt and one of the smarter Habsburg offspring. One character does, in fact, refer to the Aubreys as modern-day Habsburgs, but at least there’s not a Habsburg lip or drooling idiot in sight.

Since I only know a little about the original, I was very happy with this effort. I thought it was actually better than The Last Colony/Zoe’s Tale, clearly Scalzi’s best efforts to date. The underlying battle over the fuzzies and the fuzzies’ own response to it really give this book a depth it might otherwise not have had.

Review: Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded

In 1998, John Scalzi logged into his new domain and wrote the first entry to his blog, The Whatever.  He entertained maybe 15 people.  Today, Scalzi attracts upwards of 25,000 readers a day.  To put this in perspective, this blog lures maybe 200 non-spamming readers a day.

But I’ll catch up.  Then I can drive up to Darke County, knock on his door, and go, “Ha!  Ha ha!  And again, ha!  Take that!”  (By then, no one will be reading blogs anyway, so it will be a pyrrhic victory.*)

Over the years, Scalzi has informed, entertained, and infuriated readers.  Creationists, wingnuts, and Confederate sympathizers hate him.  Independents, science fiction fans, and The Official Ghlaghghee Fan Club all love him.  For the record, Scalzi has opined about…

  • Your politics.  They’re stupid.  Doesn’t matter what they are.  Your politics are stupid.  (Like my own post on the subject, only the libertarians thought this was funny.)
  • Being poor is not a choice.
  • The new Muppets suck
  • Journey apparently does not
  • Teen writers suck, but they’re supposed to or they won’t get any good later.
  • Sometimes an agnostic gets Christ better than a Creationist.  (Being an unorthodox Christian, I can attest to this.  Nothing can persuade me to go to the Creation Museum.)
  • Sweden has yet to answer for the atrocity known as Europe’s “The Final Countdown”
  • Fatherhood changes you, mostly for the better

Some of the posts I remember reading, especially “Being Poor,” a reaction to some post-Katrina comments that those trapped in the city were there by choice.  “I Hate Your Politics” called out the various political stripes in America on their various neuroses.

There’s no rhyme or reason to the order.  The book is simply the best of his blog, an online column about…


*Wow.  I got to use the word “pyrrhic” in a blog post.  Kookie.

Review: The God Engines

Captain Ean Tephe commands the Righteous, a ship in the service of his Lord, an actual god who rules over humanity.  The ship is powered by a captured god who is not named.  To name a god gives it power over those around it.  Tephe has a problem with his god.  It’s rebellious and angry and attacks the acolytes sent to service it.

In John Scalzi’s The God Engines, the gods exist.  They are captured and used to power starships, slaves to the humans’ Lord.  Obviously, not the God.  It becomes evident people in this far-flung future aren’t even aware of any present-day concepts of God or gods or even atheism.  The gods are rebelling, however.  They don’t want to be enslaved by the humans’ main god anymore.  The god of the Righteous seems especially ready to strike back.

The God Engines is an odd story for Scalzi.  Set in a distant future, this novella from Subterranean Press describes a world where science has been forgotten.  The gods of this future a very real and something akin to the Greek or Roman gods of old, powerful humanoids who are hard to kill and thrive on worship.  All except one, who needs souls to sustain himself. For centuries, the humans’ god has kept the peace and kept the humans faithful to him.  However, a new god is coming to challenge him.  The gods he enslaves are standing up for themselves.  And Captain Tephe is caught in the middle, a mere mortal used as a pawn.  Definitely a bizarre read.

Zoe’s Tale By John Scalzi

[Full disclosure:  John Scalzi has a restraining order against me. Maybe I should never have said I liked Greg Rollie in Journey better than Steve Perry, but there you go.]

After he said he’d take a break from the Old Man’s War universe, John Scalzi got the itch to build a story around the adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan.  In some ways, Zoe’s Tale is a retelling of The Last Colony from Zoe Boutin-Perry’s point of view, and yet it’s more.  It is more the story of a teenage girl who must deal with adolescence on top of being a treaty condition and a near-divine figure to an entire alien race and squarely in the crosshairs of a huge alliance of alien races who don’t like humans or anyone else not joining the club.

Zoe begins as a simple teenage girl, largely isolated from the political storms swirling about her.  Her only reminder that she’s not just any girl are her two Obin bodyguards, Hickory and Dickory (her names.)  When the Perry family is moved to a colony that, it turns out, is hidden so the human Colonial Union can thumb their noses at their new enemy, things get interesting.  All electronics are taken away.  Everything is done on paper, and a colony of people from all the other major colonies in the CU has to learn to do things the old fashioned way.  Wasn’t it nice the CU sent along some Mennonites to help?

Zoe spends her year isolated from modern civilization doing what teenage girls do when they’re not trying to bring in crops to feed a colony or building a home on an alien world that reeks of gym sock.  She’s into music and boys and develops a deep relationship with a fellow colonist named Enzo.  Along the way, she also learns she’s as smart as her biological father (an antagonist in The Ghost Brigades) and as skilled at diplomacy as her adopted parents.  It’s often Zoe or her friend Gretchen who break up schoolyard fights.  It’s also Zoe who saves two boys from the planet’s main predator, intelligent carnivores she dubs “werewolves.”

The novel deviates from The Last Colony (which the plot parallels) as Zoe is not always around her parents during the events of the former novel.  Indeed, some of the events are hinted at in TLC and fleshed out or grafted in in Zoe’s Tale.

The big feature is the voice.  Some of the prose is clearly John Scalzi with his light sarcasm, but he manages to put it convincingly in the mouth of a teenage girl.  Zoe’s true strength, and the crux of the story, is her internal battle.  Zoe is the daughter of a scientist and his wife, both dead, as well as Perry and Sagan.  That’s who she is.  She has a harder time dealing with what she is, especially when she is made a political football by the Obin and the CU.  But rather than turn her back on being the most revered figure in Obin culture and a treaty condition between them and the CU, she learns to accept it and use it.  “Demand something back,” Sagan tells her late in the book when Zoe has to grow up and try to save her dad.  She does from some very powerful enemies and even some reluctant allies.

Zoe’s Tale is definitely not a rehash of The Last Colony.  It’s an entirely new story built on the same events.

[Hey, whattaya know? Zoe’s Tale is up for a Hugo.]