It’s pretty safe to say that John Scalzi’s career will be defined by his Old Man’s War series. The novels have consistently been his strongest novels, and with his latest entry in the series, The End Of All Things, he’s demonstrated that they’ve become more nuanced and interesting as time goes on.
Some spoilers ahead.
Back in 2012, Scalzi announced that he would be returning to the Old Man’s War series after a bit of a break, and that this ‘novel’ would be something a little different from prior offerings. As Patrick Nielsen Hayden noted in the announcement post on Tor.com, “The Human Division will be an experiment: an episodic novel, released initially in digital, serialized form.” The novel was a really fascinating experiment that really succeeded: the 13-part collection of ebooks could be read individually, but when assembled into one longer book, they fleshed out one of the strongest entries in the Old Man’s War series.
Now, Scalzi has returned to complete the story. At the climax of The Human Division, a space station is shot out of the sky and the book just ended, leaving readers on a cliffhanger. The End Of All Things picks up right after, and carries the main part of the story to an end that will drastically change the shape of the world that he’s assembled.
Scalzi continues the format he experimented with in The Human Division: The End Of All Things is divided up into discrete parts, each telling their own story, but when assembled, they come together into a much larger story. Following the publication of The Human Division, Scalzi had asked for some feedback on what the reader’s experiences were like, and that seems to have shaped how this book was organized. Rather than 13 individual stories, The End Of All Things has been split into four, but is further subdivided down into five or so chapters per part, which has allowed him to tell some very different stories within the universe.
Following events from earlier in the series, The Colonial Defense Force has been barred from Earth Space, and relations between the Conclave and CDF have begun to tense up. At the same time, the mysterious organization that had been attacking CDF forces has begun to plan a much more ambitious attack. Their goal? Destroy the CDF and the Conclave, to bring this part of the galaxy back to its older, chaotic order. The stories that we’re presented with here follow a hapless pilot who’s been uploaded into a spaceship (his brain is kept in a box), several government figures in the Conclave, a platoon of CDF soldiers who are tasked with enforcing unrest in CDF-held worlds, and Harry Wilson, the CDF lieutenant who was one of the central figures in the last book.
If there’s any way to sum up this book succinctly, it’s survival. Scalzi has made it a point in most of the books to demonstrate that the universe is a hostile place, and that everyone is scrambling to survive. In The Human Division, we saw that there’s a ticking clock on humanity’s existence, and the arrival of a new enemy has made it tick down even faster. But Scalzi plays with some even bigger ideas: it’s not just the survival of an individual species: it’s the survival of a civilization and government, whether that’s the Conclave, a massive government of 400 species, or the CDF, a governmental/military organization that’s keeping humanity alive through aggressive expansion.
Scalzi plays with some complicated material as well: the Colonial Defense Force has become a much darker and sinister organization, and at several points, characters note that it’s little wonder that there hasn’t been a full-on revolution yet. Survival, in this instance, isn’t just about breathing at the end of the day, it’s ensuring that your species and way of life continues.
The individual stories here are all individually fascinating, but I think The Human Division had a bit of a better idea to focus on a central group of characters that formed the basis of the plot, but Harry Wilson and his team make enough appearances. Still, their story (The final one in the novel, ‘To Stand or Fall’) was probably one of the stronger ones. The first one, ‘The Life Of The Mind’ was also notable, a rather horrifying account of a pilot who’s brain was removed and uploaded into a spaceship. Each story is engaging, and while the more focused nature of this book worked a bit better when it came to the story, I miss some of the variety.
That said, reading this book, like the last, is a little jarring: looking at the individual stories is like looking at the sky through a pinhole. You get one small story that’s going on, without a lot of the context. It’s not until the end that you see just how the entire story fits into the puzzle, and everything makes a considerable amount of space. The reader is forced to trust that the author knows what they’re doing, and in this case, it’s a fun ride that keeps the reader guessing.
More importantly, this book represents a major change in the series. Scalzi noted on his blog that he didn’t really feel compelled to crank out entry after entry in the series as some military SF cycles are prone to doing. The practical result of this means that the series has been continually evolving, in form and style, with each book. While the first three books are relatively similar in tone, the fourth, Zoe’s Tale, strays very much into YA territory, while The Human Division and End Of All Things play with the aforementioned changes in medium and structure.
But more than that, the type of story and presentation of the world has matured. Where Old Man’s War starts off as your standard military science fiction adventure modeled after Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, this latest entry takes on a nuanced view of the world. Few aliens are shot in the heat of battle (although there are some), and you’re more likely to see the characters try and figure out just how the world got to where it was - teasing out the implications of their world and how they impact the rest of the universe. There’s an excellent point where a CDF soldier is questioning an alien: the alien note that when its species was forced back from their colonial worlds, it caused a ripple effect: it crashed their economy and left them with unemployment. Ergo, when it’s former commander asked it if it would take part in some questionable military operations, it joined up, along with many others.
This sounds like dull territory, and it might be for anyone who’s going into the book expecting space battles and ground combat every other page, but for me, this is fascinating, uncharted territory for military science fiction. The world is a considerably complicated place, and this is a book that recognizes it, and attempts to capture a tiny piece of that complexity. The format of the book, with its four parts and sub-chapters, aids the narrative in this regard, reminding me of the films Syriana or Traffic by telling huge story in tiny brushstrokes. This is a smart novel, one that represents a vastly more mature worldview from that of the series’ first entry.
With a major book deal in place, I have no doubts that Scalzi will return to the Old Man’s War universe in the next couple of years, and hopefully, the SyFy channel will follow through and adapt the books in short order. For now, however, the series has been left in a good place, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Artist credit: John Harris.