stoolpigeon writes "John Scalzi, the author of Hugo Award-nominated science fiction novel Old Man's War, has built what started as a story serialized in his blog into a series of full novels and short stories. The latest installment in the OMW universe, Zoe's Tale, is quite a departure from the previous three books. It is the first of Scalzi's sci-fi novels written intentionally as young adult fiction. In a move that I am sure will continue to fuel Scalzi/Heinlein comparisons, Zoe is a precocious young woman thrust into a world of adventure and danger. In just three years Scalzi has built an impressive resume as an author of fiction, and Zoe's Tale will be no small part of what looks to be an influential and outstanding career." Keep reading for the rest of JR's review.Scalzi himself rightly credited the influence of Heinlein when Old Man's War was published. Unfortunately I think that some have taken the comparisons too far and tend to view everything that Scalzi writes in terms of how it contrasts or parallels something by Heinlein. I think this is a mistake, not because Scalzi isn't a great writer like Heinlein but because Scalzi has his own voice. His work has a considerably different tone and viewpoint from much of what Heinlein published. It would not be correct to view Scalzi in a vacuum but it seems to me that it is just as much an error to define Scalzi in terms of RAH. For what it is worth, Scalzi has said on his blog that he welcomes the Heinlein comparisons as it helps him to sell books.
I mention this because Heinlein is very well known for his juveniles. Podkayne of Mars is a very well known and in some ways controversial novel that centers around a young woman and her adventures. Zoe's Tale shares a few surface characteristics with Podkayne but is in many ways almost the opposite story. I think this is important to mention because I think some people may dismiss this book as a retread of something else, but this couldn't be further from the truth. This is a fresh tale, and I believe may be one of those stories that years from now will be a fondly remembered first read for many science fiction fans.
Each of the previous Old Man's War universe novels stands well on it's own. There is very little overlap of characters in the first two and while the third brings back major characters from the first two, knowledge of them is not required to follow the story. Zoe's Tale stands on it's own as well but this is because it is a retelling of the third book, The Last Colony from a completely different perspective. Whereas The Last Colony focuses primarily on John Perry and Jane Sagan from Old Man's War, Zoe's Tale as the title informs is told from the perspective of their adopted daughter, Zoe.
Zoe is very much a typical teenager, though she lives in very atypical circumstances; even for a teenager in her time of interplanetary travel and colonization. Humanity lives in a universe shared with a myriad of other intelligent species. Many of them are competing for very rare and valuable real estate, inhabitable planets. The human government has decided to start their first new colony populated by people coming from existing colonies. To this point every new colony has been started by people leaving earth. Zoe's parents John and Jane are asked to lead this endeavor.
I would imagine that a middle aged man writing a teenage character of the opposite sex would be quite a stretch. Scalzi says that he had quite a bit of help from women in his life. However he did it, he pulled it off extremely well. Zoe is smart, sometimes a bit too smart for her own good. She is sarcastic and moody but a much fuller person than some whiney caricature. The reader gets to experience her ups and downs and watch her grow. She's a great kid right from the start but even stronger, more confident and wiser by the end. This is a book for young adults that does not treat the reader or the subject matter in a childish way.
In fact there aren't a ton of differences between this and any other Scalzi book. There is a good bet that this will work just as well for adults as kids. The language is tamer, there is no graphic sexual content (though I can't think of any in the other books). and the violence is toned down. There is still action and there is violence, but the descriptions are not quite as graphic as in the other novels. The emotions and the consequences of actions and words are just as strong and this is important. While this is less graphic, that does not mean content or meaning is filtered out. It truly is a young adult novel with emphasis on young.
Many of the greatest science fiction stories for youth out there were written in the 50's. Scalzi has created a modern tale that incorporates current technology, mores and norms in this story. This is an excellent introduction for any young man or woman who may not already be an avid science fiction fan. Important themes include those of being truthful, transparency in government, the sanctity of life and loyalty. These and more are touched on at various times but the book never feels preachy or heavy handed in its approach.
There is only one real negative with this book and it is only a drawback for those who have already read The Last Colony. The story is told from a completely new perspective, but it is still the same story. There are many new scenes and information brought in that were not revealed in Zoe's predecessor, but the outcomes are the same. This is not a weakness through a failing on the part of the author but rather a natural outcome of writing two books taking place in the same time frame. I still really enjoyed the book and was eager to see how certain events took place but it didn't hold quite the same impact at times as events had when I read The Last Colony. This wont be an issue for anyone who hasn't read that book or any young people who haven't read any of the novels. For me it was the difference between a 9 and a 10.
That is such a small thing though. This is a strong entry in a great series that I believe is destined to be considered a classic. Scalzi's entry into the field is a welcome treatment of classic themes with a fresh new viewpoint that is smart and entertaining.
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