Thursday, January 15, 2009

Review: Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi

I have long been a fan of science fiction. I blame my parents: they've been Trekkers since the original series was out (though we're all nervous about that new movie that's coming out...but that's a post for a different blog!). Hence, a lot of my reading skews towards science fiction, though often it's "soft" science fiction - as opposed to hardcore Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. Those stories focus a lot on the science and technology of the future - like a lot of Star Trek can do. The stories that generally appeal to me however are of the softer variety, where the story is clearly in the future and science-y stuff has happened, but that's kind of on the periphery and the story is going to focus more on the characters and how they feel. And while I like the "hard" science fiction, there's one big turn off for me: it's all about dudes. Women and girls don't get to have rollicking action adventures nearly often enough.

Which is why I found Zoe's Tale to be so fun. There's lots of hard science fiction in here - we've got new space colonies being settled, aliens that have had consciousness artificially installed, and space battles.

Big space battles.

And right in the thick of all of this science fiction action adventure is Zoe. Adopted daughter of the leaders of the new colony (called Roanoke. And their first settlement is Croatoan. Of course this colony is going to have Big Problems) and a revered almost-Goddess of the Obin - the aliens with the artificial consciousness, thanks to the work of Zoe's biological father. For most of her life, Zoe has constantly been accompanied by two Obin, named Hickory and Dickory, who act as her bodyguards while they record her entire life in order to teach the Obin back home about what it means to live.

Being part of the first waves of colonists to Roanoke isn't exactly exciting, but it's a lot more exciting than continuing to live a comfortable life on New Delhi, Zoe's last home. But founding the new colony becomes much more exciting (in a less-than-positive way) when the Colonial Union government reveals at the last minute that the colonists aren't being sent to the planet they originally thought - they're going to found Roanoke on a completely different planet, and be completely cut off from the rest of human civilization in order to shield the colony from being discovered by the Conclave - a group of aliens who are hostile to humans expanding their colonial presence in space. The Conclave wants to destroy Roanoke, and the only way to protect the fledgling colony was to mislead the Conclave about their location and cut off all radio contact with Roanoke.

Of course, even the best laid plans can fall apart. And that's where the science fiction action adventure really kicks in. While life on Roanoke is initially rather quiet, with the colonists having to learn how to live without any of the electric devices they've always relied on (from PDAs to farm equipment). Adapting to life on a different planet presents its own set of challenges, everything from learning to live with the rotten smell of the plant-life to the presence of other species on the planet. Zoe has some adventures while on the surface, but it's nothing compared to what happens when the Conclave does find Roanoke...and the choices Zoe must make in order to protect her family, friends, and the sacred bond she has with the Obin.

This is the fourth book in Scalzi's Old Man's War series. I haven't read any of the other books, but was convinced by Lynn Rutan's review over here that not only would this be right up my alley, but it wouldn't be hard to get into. She was absolutely right. Scalzi does an excellent job giving the backstory so it's entirely possible to enjoy this without any previous knowledge of the story. It doesn't hurt that Zoe is an incredibly fun character with razor sharp wit. Scalzi includes an extremely informative author's note at the end about how he went about writing a parallel novel (this follows the events of The Lost Colony) and writing a teenage girl. Not having read The Lost Colony, I have no idea how successful this works as a parallel piece, but he definitely got the teenage girl part exactly right.

I didn't run out immediately to get the previous Old Man's War books (I had a huge stack of books I reserved from the library come in all at once, so I have to wade through some of those first!), but I'm sure I'll eventually wander over to them.
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