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The Last Colony by John Scalzi
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765316974
Date: 17 April 2007 List Price $23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

With the Last Colony, John Scalzi closes (for a while, anyway) the Old Man's War story, and quite possibly he's saved the best for last as well. Ex-soldiers John Perry and Jane Sagan are living a comfortable existence as an ombudsman and one woman police force respectively, on the quiet backwater planet Huckleberry, when a former commander shows up to drag them out of a retirement and back into the center of man's fight for survival in the cosmos. This time they're not being asked to lead troops into battle against alien hordes, they're being asked to lead a colony in its first years on a new world. Which sounds simple enough, since colonizing is a pretty well established deal, though these colonists are the first second generation colonists, and though there's a lot John and Jane don't know about the game they're part of, they do know that Roanoke colony is a pawn in a much bigger and deadlier game than just surviving on the frontier. Fortunately, they've got a secret weapon; their adopted daughter Zoe, who happens to be worshiped by an entire alien race. But that's another story, the one told in the last book, The Ghost Brigades. Many SF writers are compared to Heinlein, Scalzi raises the bar more than a notch. If RAH were alive today, he'd be enjoying The Last Colony along with the rest of us.

John Perry was born on Earth, emigrated to the stars to be a soldier in Old Man's War and then settled down to become a farmer in the sky when his tour of duty was over. Along the way he got himself a new body, courtesy of the Colonial Defense Force, a new wife, based on the DNA of the one he'd lost before he left Earth, but with the memories and killer instinct of a super special forces officer, and a teenage daughter, who happens to be the offspring of a scientist that was willing to sell out humanity to save her. The second would be Jane Sagan, and the third, Zoe. Zoe comes complete with alien bodyguards, by the way, representatives of a race that pretty much worships her.

It's easy to see that John's gone through a lot in the first two books of Scalzi's Old Man's War trilogy, and you might think that settling down with a wife he lost once and found again, sort of, and a sassy daughter he loves would be enough. Maybe it is, but when he's given the offer to head the first colony that's being formed out of second generation colonists, the general he'd served with in the CDF doesn't have to beg him to leave his comfortable life as farmer/ombudsman to get him to go. General Rybicki does wind up begging both John and Jane, but really, Perry was a pushover. Jane's entire life, though artificially short, was spent in special ops in the nastiest wars mankind ever had to fight, and she was actually looking forward to staying on a planet she didn't have to decimate and depart from, but the general did beg, and where John goes she goes, so that was that.

The colonists are a mixed bunch, to say the least. Not only is this the first colony seeded from other colonies, instead of straight from Earth, the three worlds that sent them are as different as human worlds can be. One group was selected by lottery, another by game show, and the third is a religious group...Colonial Mennonites to be precise, which turns out to be a pacific group that avoids technology whenever it can. Onto this mix of cultures Perry and Sagan are dumped to fend for themselves, and keep the colony from self destructing long enough to gain a toehold.

That's enough to make things interesting, but they're not being told everything.

The original Roanoke colony on Earth disappeared not long after its founding by the English on the shores of Virginia, and it turns out that this colony has been selected for the same fate. Whether it's temporary or permanent depends on the resourcefulness of it's leaders. You see, it turns out that mankind hasn't been making any friends as it moves out into the galaxy, taking and holding colony worlds by dint of military force, and there are forces out there that would like nothing better than to wipe the new colony off the face of the brave new world it's set up on. But to do that, they'll have to find it, and though the colonists didn't know they were going off to set up a stealth colony, they do a pretty good job of bowing to the inevitable, even though it means adopting a lifestyle that only comes naturally to the Mennonites among them.

Even so, it's only a matter of time before they're found, and before the skies above Roanoke are filled with an armada of starships out to make a point of any upstart colony.

As Perry tries to keep his colony from being incinerated, he needs to figure out what the larger game that he, Jane and Zoe, and the colony itself are pawns in, and to outsmart the players so that Roanoke doesn't go the way of its namesake. The parallels to Post 9/11 America are easy to see as the CDF attempts to out maneuver a collection of alien races that it hopelessly underestimates, setting Roanoke up to take the fall and spur humanity to fight.

There's a lot to like in this book, and of the three in the series, it's probably the best. If Joe Haldeman's Forever War was the antithesis of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, Scalzi's books have managed a synthesis of the two, offering a mix of heroic and nearsighted humans not doing themselves any favors in their relations with alien neighbors. Heinlein fans will find echoes of both Starman Jones and Tunnel in the Sky.

The book isn't perfect, and its weakness is that the external politics which threaten the colony take center stage and the business of actually colonizing a world get shortchanged as a result. In classic SF colony fashion, for instance, the colonists find that there are intelligent hominids on the planet, but they only make a brief appearance in the novel, just long enough to have lunch of the colonists and disappear from the book. That's a pity, because the ending would have been much more satisfying if the natives could have been used to defend the colony rather than falling off the pages.

Still, the book has a pretty satisfying ending, which the author tells us wraps up this series, at least for the moment, and it won't be at all surprising to find The Last Colony on next year's Hugo ballot. Scalzi's books are compelling not so much due to the cleverness of the dilemmas the characters must resolve, but the characters themselves; folks easy to like, and hard not to root for.


Our Readers Respond

From: Dawn B.
    Just a note of correction: Roanoke was settled by colonists from 10 different planets, not 3. The three selection process were examples given, but there were 10 planets sending 250 colonists each for a total of 2,500.

    Other than that I liked this review of the book and agree that it is sad that the native population subplot seemed to just be lost.

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