Oct 16 2015

The End of All Things by John Scalzi

In the two most recent books set in his Old Man’s War universe, The Human Division and now The End of All Things, John Scalzi has been busy shaking up the structures that he set up in the earlier books. Briefly, the galaxy is full of starfaring civilizations, most of them relentlessly hostile to each other. To survive in the interstellar environment, humanity has not only developed the fearsome weapons of space warfare, it has a political setup to enable humans to both colonize new systems and fight aliens on a nearly continuous basis. The Colonial Union controls humanity’s defenses and serves as an inter-system government, also representing humanity on the rare occasions when contact between intelligent species is conducted by diplomacy rather than warfare. Earth serves as a reservoir of people, providing the bulk of soldiers for the Colonial Defense Forces. The colonies have far smaller populations than the Earth, shelter and develop under the umbrella provided by the CDF, but without generally contributing to the common defense. This arrangement has existed for centuries, as humanity gained and kept a toehold among the stars.

The earlier books in the series have shown this environment from the perspective of a common soldier, a member of the CDF’s elite special forces, a colonial administrator, and the administrator’s daughter. Beginning with The Human Divison, Scalzi has been writing about how this arrangement is coming apart.

Within the setting, one of the important changes is that non-human species are working together, or at the very least, no longer fighting each other as ruthlessly as before. The Conclave brings together roughly 400 species and their various colonized systems under a banner of enforced non-aggression. They enforce limits on colonization and maintain a status quo among the many species.

I think that at a more meta level, Scalzi realized that the political system he had described could not possibly be as stable as he had posited in the earlier books. It’s a quandary that is not uncommon among science fiction authors creating on a vast canvas. He had certain ideas for the first stories he wanted to tell, and thus the setting had to be able to accommodate those ideas. There had to be more than just a handful of human colonies; there had to be a large military organization; Earth had to be mostly in the dark about the shape of interstellar governance. That worked fine for the first few novels set in this universe, but as Scalzi explored it more deeply, he discovered that the foundations of the setting were not, indeed could not be, as stable as he had portrayed when they were merely background information.

Consider an institutions that outsiders regard as both durable and stable over the scale of centuries — the British monarchy, for example. Then take any span of three hundred years (the minimum, I should think, for the “centuries” that the CDF has been in business) in its history, and close examination is likely to show civil wars, successful invasions, changes of the ruling house, upheaval in the relationship between sovereign and population, and much more.

The Colonial Union, and the CDF as its most visible arm, are even more susceptible to systematic change because they operate in a universe with many more wild cards. The relationship between the Colonial Union and Earth — with one in charge and the other, presumably blissfully unaware, offering up the bulk of the soldiery is likely to be a brittle one. If it’s implausible that Earth remained uninformed for the centuries before Scalzi began writing this universe’s stories, at least he has not tried to prolong the implausibility. The Human Division set up Earth’s discovery of its true position within the Colonial Union, putting in place the background for The End of All Things, which explores some of the ramifications.

By “explores ramifications,” I mean “tells fast-paced, action-packed stories that also just happen to change the setup of the fictional universe and look at political questions large and small.” They also feature the snappy dialogue, plot reversals and roller-coaster rides that are Scalzi trademarks. For all that The End of All Things grapples with some larger questions, the tales within it are first and foremost entertainments.

The book is set up as four novellas, each written in the first person, so that readers see developments from a more tightly constrained point of view. Scalzi is writing about big events in the universe that he has set up, but he concentrates on the individuals shaping those events, mostly leaving it to readers to figure out the implications. For the first one, “The Life of the Mind,” he seems to have set himself a question: How can a brain in a box escape its predicament, and even come to affect outside events? The answers are “surprisingly,” and “in a way that sets up other elements of the book.”

The second, “This Hollow Union,” looks at events inside the Conclave. The Conclave is a new and fragile polity, dependent on the prestige of its founding leader, General Tarsem Gau. The leader’s second-in-command narrates this story, giving an insider’s view, but not the protagonist that a reader might at first expect. The General and his advisers all see that the heroic phase of the Conclave’s founding is coming to an end, and that a time of competition and factions will necessarily follow. The members are beginning to take for granted the peace that the Conclave has brought and are beginning to jockey for primacy. Indeed, some of them would be happy to split the Conclave open. Into that mix come relations with the two divisions of humanity, who handed the Conclave a major defeat in an earlier story, along with a shadowy cabal that seems content to play the the humans and the Conclave against each other.

I thought the third novella, “Can Long Endure,” the strongest part of the book. It follows a small group of CDF soldiers over the course of several missions. There is action and thrills, but the soldiers find that they are not fighting aliens bent on eradicating human life; instead, they are struggling against colonists who are unhappy with the rule of the Colonial Union. After the high-level politicking and negotiating of “This Hollow Union,” Scalzi brings readers back to the ground-level view, or at least the paragliding-in-from-space view of a CDF soldier. Even in counterinsurgency against, ultimately, the soldiers’ own people things are not as they seem. The grievances are real, but there are also ties to what is happening beyond the borders of the Colonial Union.

The fourth, “To Stand or Fall,” brings together parts that have been set in motion in the first three. The discontent in both Colonial Union and Conclave, the shadowy cabal playing both sides against the middle, the unsustainable relationship between Earth and CDF, even a particular brain in a box — all come together in a race against time and interstellar destruction.

Having extended the stable life of the Colonial Union in the background to his novels, Scalzi compresses the conflicts and resolutions shown in The End of All Things. Negotiations would have taken much longer; the agreements that emerged would have been much more ambiguous; changes of course would have been much more half-hearted and prone to being taken back. Once political conflict has become deadly, it is all too easy for at least one side to prefer a lose-lose solution to one that is win-win, or it can become more important that an enemy lose than that one’s own side makes positive gains. That’s too often true in conflicts among humans, and I can imagine it being even more prevalent in conflicts between species. Ultimately, though, Scalzi is telling a story of how things can go right. If the final plan calls for many moving parts to behave just so, and for timing among many disparate elements to work out perfectly, that’s fine for this story. Other writers can have everything crash and burn under the weight of Murphy’s Law. All’s well that ends all things well.

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