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Zoe's Tale 109

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.
Zoe's Tale
author John Scalzi
pages 335
publisher Tor Books
rating 9/10
reviewer JR Peck
ISBN 978-0-7653-1698-1
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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Zoe's Tale

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  • Hmm (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Mozk ( 844858 )

    I feel as though I'm the only geek that doesn't read science fiction.

    • I've been waiting to buy this book for ages, but the edition of Amazon seems to have chosen not to stock the hardcover edition, rather holding out for the paperback edition due in june :-/
      • I have ordered to the States from, although it was some years ago... Are you sure you can't go the other way? If you're willing to shell out the $ for a hardcover anyway, surely the shipping can't be much more if you do it overseas.

    • Re:Hmm (Score:4, Funny)

      by TheRealMindChild ( 743925 ) on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:47PM (#26204295) Homepage Journal
      Where the hell do you all get time to read... FICTION?! With all of these meetings, TPS reports, slashdot, who has time for crap like that?
    • I don't either...

    • I went through a few years where I didn't. I got on a fantasy kick, then alternate history, then a short flirtation with erotic vampire stories (yeah, yeah, I know, sue me), several straight historical novels, a few classics I missed in school, and then back to SF via Scalzi's trilogy.


      I like the first two a lot, but he ends #2 with the hint that the Colonial Union might be planning something really clever to counter the Conclave, and book 3 starts with all that dead and done already, and the C

      • I got the trilogy, one of the random books sent by the sci fi bookclub. It was decent and it reminded me of the old sci fi. You know the early Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein. They were small books, a quick read. A good concept, fun action. Having recently re-read the early Asimov empire novels it reminded me quite a bit of that.

        With that said, how it got a Hugo nomination I have no idea. It must have been a bad year for Sci Fi. Then again overall most of the Hugo nominations for 08 weren't as good as novels in p

        • With that said, how it got a Hugo nomination I have no idea. It must have been a bad year for Sci Fi. Then again overall most of the Hugo nominations for 08 weren't as good as novels in previous years.

          You know, when I was a kid, a novelist had to walk twenty miles in the snow to win a Hugo Award. You kids with your rock and roll hootchie koos. We read space opera and liked it!
      • I hope when he writes other novels he starts new stories in other settings.

        Too many of the current SF authors create franchise universes with more and more sequels.

        The Ring of Fire series has grown worse with each novel.

        The latest one, "1638: The Dreeson Incident" by Eric Flint and Virginia DeMarce, is nearly 600 pages long, of which 400 pages consist of talking heads discussing family relationships. I felt like I was reading a soap opera script.
    • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

      How do you manage that? I've never known a techie who didn't like science fiction.

      The AC who responded to you doesn't count; he's AC and therefore most likely just a troll.

      • by Mozk ( 844858 )

        The only things that I can think of that come close are the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which was great, but is more comedy than science fiction, and various Ray Bradbury works. I could see myself getting interested, howerver. Perhaps you could recommend something?

        And I would imagine that to an Anonymous Coward, "sitting back with Hemingway" implies some sort of innuendo that I dare not contemplate.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by stoolpigeon ( 454276 ) *

          The funniest sci-fi I've read in years was The Android's Dream [] - also by Scalzi. It's not just humour - there is a lot more going on but the humour that is there is the stuff that I think Douglas Adams really excelled at creating - very silly and ironic at the same time. Sometimes biting but never mean spirited.

          Science fiction and funny are not all that easy to pull off I think - at least based on some of the failed attempts I've read.

        • Re:Hmm (Score:4, Informative)

          by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Monday December 22, 2008 @04:50PM (#26204883) Homepage Journal

          I was always an Asimov and Heinlein fan, but Frank herbert's Dune series is a masterpiece. It's well written, readable, and makes one think about politics, religion, and a host of other things. Its only drawback is the same as LOTR - it's very, very long.

          If you like REAL adult fiction, Asimov's The Robots of Dawn features adultery and a humaniform robot used as a dildo. His stuff is incredibly readable. The Foundation trilogy deals with sociopolitical themes.

          Much of Heinlein's stuff was excellent, although sometimes his politics gets in the way of his writing.

          As to HHGTG, that series was hilarious, but I didn't care for Adams' detective stories.

          I don't care much for Bradbury, but I'm in the minority, and certainly his Farenheight 451 is a classic.

          I'm sorry that all but one of these guys are either geriatric or dead; my ex-wife hated books and got me out of the habit of reading. I got to the point that I didn't read anything but nonfiction. I'm only now, five years after my divorce, rediscovering my love of books.

          I recently discovered Cory Doctorow, although he's known for science fiction, his Little Brother is set pretty much in the future; a future that may soon disappear (at least I'm hopeful). IMO it's a great book. It's on the internet at, along with a couple other of his novels (which of course are also available in bookstores).

          • >Its only drawback is the same as LOTR - it's very, very long.

            The trick is to not read any of the sequels. If you must, you may read up to Dune Emperor but nothing past that. Trust me, by then you wont want to.

            • I thought God Emperor was the perfect ending to the overall story.

              I saw the books past that, and thought, "why?"

              Then I read the first one and part of the second, and realized the answer is, "no particular reason".

              You are correct: stop at God Emperor and move on. There's too much good stuff out there to spend time reading crap.

          • by Tolkien ( 664315 )

            I was always an Asimov and Heinlein fan, but Frank herbert's Dune series is a masterpiece. It's well written, readable, and makes one think about politics, religion, and a host of other things. Its only drawback is the same as LOTR - it's very, very long.

            Why is long a drawback? I hate finishing books that I've been enjoying reading. By that I mean I finish them but I always wish there was more. I'll add the caveat that this really only applies to novels, series like LOTR are covered so completely that there are no blanks to fill in by the end.

            HHGTG I started reading and absolutely loved it. I put it down for a while because I didn't want to finish it right away, then I was robbed, and I can't find the book anymore. :'(

            I haven't given up hope in finding it i

      • by Rary ( 566291 )

        My techie credentials: professional software developer; been playing with computers since about age 8 (1980); etc.

        I grew up reading science fiction, and I'm a huge fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. I'm also a Star Wars nerd, and I love Blade Runner (I've read the Phillip K. Dick novel as well). However, other than Vonnegut, I just don't read sci-fi anymore, nor do I have any interest in sci-fi movies (other than the aforementioned classics).

        The Matrix bored me. All of the Star Trek-ish shows on T

        • The same goes for fantasy. I read Tolkien as a kid, but when I went to see Fellowship of the Ring in the theatre, I kept looking at my watch and wondering when it was going to end (that was the longest movie I've sat through in a long time). I didn't even bother with the other two.

          You missed little. The first one is by far the best.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Chyeld ( 713439 )

      Don't worry, you aren't. You can't call yourself a geek and not read science fiction. It's like saying you are the one drop of water that isn't wet. :-P

    • by PCM2 ( 4486 )

      I feel as though I'm the only geek that doesn't read science fiction.

      I read a good amount [] and I also tend to avoid genre fiction. But that's not really because I don't like the genres -- it's the trappings of genre fiction that get old and boring, IMHO. Who wants to read about a bunch of cardboard characters strung together with cliches? But there's usually something from every genre that's worth reading, just because it's good. I really can't see myself getting into Louis L'amour, for example, and I don't really even enjoy that many Western movies, but I'm perfectly happy

  • by georgewilliamherbert ( 211790 ) on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:32PM (#26204127)

    John posts on his blog that he's busy all day with real life and a sick kid, and you go and slashdot him...


    Good book, though.

  • by BigHungryJoe ( 737554 ) on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:34PM (#26204155) Homepage

    I haven't read Zoe's Tale, but I have read Old Man's War (which I think was the first) and the Last Colony.

    These are good scifi books in their own right, but they ask some tough questions about government accountability and the need for secrecy in the name of security.

    I wish he had never introduced the ability for the BrainPal to snoop on other BrainPal's, though. For Scalzi, it's a great piece of plot convenience, but I always feel like he's cheating when he uses it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by stoolpigeon ( 454276 ) *

      I wouldn't go that far. In fact - I think not putting it into play would be ignoring a very obvious capability that someone would design into that kind of equipment. Especially a government like the one we find in these books.

      • Although, the technology in Old Man's War is pretty erratic.

        Everything seems to boil down to "magic" nanites and what they can and cannot do. The soldiers all run around with one nano-tech gun that can transform itself into anything on a whim. They even replace their blood with the stuff.

        However, guns and soldiers bodies are apparently the only things that benefit from this nanotech miracle. None of the spaceships seem to be capable of any self repair or modification. The soldiers don't even deploy
    • by OzPeter ( 195038 )
      Plot convenience??

      The whole Brain Pal thing was a huge plot convenience. I'd love to know what sort of transmission medium he envisaged for the damn things. All that transmitting about of high bandwidth data should have attracted a lot of enemy attention.

      But don't think I am dissing the story line. I absolutely loved Old Mans War and The Ghost Brigades. But to me a lot of The Lost Colony seemed to be more setup for the ending.

      On another note the first two books had some similarities with the mil

  • by vjmurphy ( 190266 ) on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:39PM (#26204209) Homepage

    It is the first of Scalzi's sci-fi novels written intentionally as young adult fiction.

    Where are his unintentionally written young adult fiction novels? I bet they are much more fun to read.

  • "Young Adults" (Score:1, Offtopic)

    by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

    Are you referring to adolescents? If so, say so. If you're talking about young ADULTS, i.e. those of drinking age, why would their tastes in fiction be any different from a geezer like me?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by stoolpigeon ( 454276 ) *

      Dude - I don't make the terms up [] I just use them. And for many of them I doubt that their tastes are a lot different than yours - but the reality is that marketing to them may require reigning in certain elements more easily found in 'adult' fiction. This is a book that could safely make it into a school library in the U.S. - I think. (You never know sometimes.)

  • by greg_barton ( 5551 ) <greg_barton@y[ ] ['aho' in gap]> on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:56PM (#26204369) Homepage Journal

    You watch a Shakespeare play over and over while knowing the end. Does it make it any worse? Nope. And, seriously, how many times have ya'll watched "Empire Strikes Back"? :)

    As for comparisons between Scalzi and Heinlein, it never really occured to me, and I've read just about everything by both authors at least twice. It makes sense now that the review mentioned it, but I don't think it's significant enough to get worked up about.

    • I don't get worked up about it - but I've read reviews of other books where they basically explain Scalzi's book in terms of which Heinlein that it matches.

      This Zoe's Tale Review [] wonders if "...Scalzi has perfected some kind of occult ritual to allow the spirit of the late Grand Master to possess his body."

      This Last Colony review [] says that it is really 2 books in one - one of which is The Tunnel in the Sky. Which I really can't agree with and think it is only the Heinlein tie in that made t

    • by genner ( 694963 )

      You watch a Shakespeare play over and over while knowing the end.

      Nope, never. Modern theater makes it unessary with all the constant remakes. I'm still looking for a Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending.

    • by MobyDisk ( 75490 )

      Yes, but you often watch it over the second time to either
      - Relive the experience the first time
      - Look beyond the plot and into the intricacies you missed the first time

      The first time experience of not knowing the plot is still important.

    • And, seriously, how many times have ya'll watched "Empire Strikes Back"? :)

      Once every three and a half years, whether I need it or not.

  • by MikeRT ( 947531 ) on Monday December 22, 2008 @04:04PM (#26204443)

    I think the part that I found most interesting was how he ended The Last Colony with the aliens defeating the Colonial Union without having to go to war. It would be interesting to see him write a new story that takes place several decades later when the aliens have completely liberated the Earth from the Colonial Union, and maybe even have Earth conquer the colonials out of revenge for exploitation that it suffered at their hands.

  • Heinlein Comparison (Score:3, Informative)

    by rossz ( 67331 ) <ogre@geekbiker.nFORTRANet minus language> on Monday December 22, 2008 @04:10PM (#26204489) Homepage Journal

    Having met Mr. Scalzi, I can guarantee that he would see it the highest praise possible to compare him to Heinlein.

    • Heinlein had some great ideas that I wish were more well-known. He told good stories to illustrate them, too. On the flipside, his characters tended to be pretty flat, there was always an obvious mouthpiece for his own viewpoint, and his dialog was very weak.

      I haven't read any Scalzi, and I do have great respect for Heinlein, but I hope the comparisons only hold true for the positive traits. Are Scalzi's books deeper than pure entertainment? Do they raise questions about the human condition, our treatme

      • Are Scalzi's books deeper than pure entertainment?
          Do they raise questions about the human condition, our treatment of others, the role of governments, etc.?
        Though I think you might be selling RAH a little short. Yes - he preached - but just because his books didn't actually ask the questions themselves doesn't mean he didn't inspire the reader to ask those questions.

        • Though I think you might be selling RAH a little short. Yes - he preached - but just because his books didn't actually ask the questions themselves doesn't mean he didn't inspire the reader to ask those questions.

          Perhaps I wasn't clear enough, because I agree that Heinlein directly or indirectly raises important questions. I just don't like his dialog, and that's not intended as a slight - dialog is hard to do well. It's the weakest part of my own writing. Some of his books are great in spite of that shortcoming because they are carried by the ideas and questions he poses.

          • It's interesting to think about how we are impacted by books based on when we first read them. I wish I could take an objective look at a Heinlein story as an adult - but I can't because I read them all as a kid. And to be honest, at the time I was quite infatuated with his ideas. Since then I've grown up a bit, but I'm so nostalgic about the stories that it is very difficult for me to be objective about them at all.

      • Are Scalzi's books deeper than pure entertainment?

        Absolutely not. This is very much young adult literature. Simple story and worldbuilding, little or no character development, the protagonist is Superman and the focus is on the action.

    • by tsstahl ( 812393 )
      Having not met Mr. Scalzi, I'll fuel the controversy and help expand the genre I like so much.

      Scalzi is a Heinlein rip off of the first rate. Scalzi's leftist feminist whacko characters make Heinlein's look like lecherous lesbians.

      The gratuitous gore and sex might be ok, but every single afterglow of victory or orgasm is buzz killed by some whiny preachy little tart complaining about the failures of mankind.

      For the record, I have not read any of Scalzi's material, and I do like most of Heinlein's
    • by MobyDisk ( 75490 )

      Perhaps, but what would Mr. Heinlein think?

  • by Giant Electronic Bra ( 1229876 ) on Monday December 22, 2008 @04:19PM (#26204583)

    I can see the comparisons to Heinlien, but OMW really struck me as being very much in the same vein as The Forever War.

    Great writer though, so definitely worth checking out anything he writes.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Reziac ( 43301 ) *

      Exactly. The scenario looks sortof like RAH on the surface, but the tone and underlying morality is much closer to The Forever War, and I kept feeling like I was in FW's parallel universe the whole way thru OMW. Which didn't detract, but it was certainly odd.

      I really liked OMW, it was a wholly new concept, and the story and characters ran full-tilt with it. But I found the sequels merely readable, not compelling, and the universe they inhabit has taken on the cartoonish appearance of ... ah, hell, what's th

      • I'd say Scalzi sets somewhere between the two. I think he is a stronger advocate for the use of force but with a lot less 'joy' in the destruction than RAH. I thought all the OMW books were less preachy than either FW or Starship Troopers.

        I thought the sequels did a good job of driving home ideas that were just brushed up against in the first. I like how they each stand on their own, and visit those common themes from a number of perspectives.

        I think that cartoonish feel is a real tough s

        • by Reziac ( 43301 ) *

          Yeah, it's more "off in the same direction as" rather than "a lot like" either Halderman or RAH, and for different reasons with each. Agreed on your other points as well.

          The problem I've developed with aliens, especially non-humanoid types, is that usually they're just different for the sake of being different, rather than due to good and reasonable biology... and I just can't stand reading about 'em anymore. -- As you say, Cherryh is among the best at presenting aliens that are believable within the contex

      • Reziac - the book you're thinking of is definitely Piers Anthony - just cant think of the title atm - if i remember when i get home ill take a quick look through my collection and post it
        • by Reziac ( 43301 ) *

          Anthony was my first thought, I should have listened to myself :) Most of my older collection are kinda-permanently boxed up, and it would require a major archeological dig to find 'em in the back reaches of my library :/

          Looking forward to having my curiosity satisfied :)

    • One of the blurbs on my copy describes OMW as "The Forever War with better sex." That's pretty accurate, but I don't see anything wrong with that.
    • by puto ( 533470 )
      Thank you sir!

      Haldeman actually saw combat and was wounded. He knew war from the trenches, firsthand. And it tempered his writing and his humanity.

      Heinlein was brilliant, understood war, and while an admiral, was in the rear with the gear.

      Both great authors but I find as a get older I enjoy rereading Haldeman more.

      Though Time Enough for Love still brings a tear to my eye.
  • Saw it on Penny Arcade [] and made a mental note to look into it. Then I saw it here and from the comments definitely looks like it's right up my alley. Funny what word of mouth has turned into in this day and age.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by stoolpigeon ( 454276 ) *

      Gabe did a cover for an earlier Scalzi book - "Agent to the Stars" [] (which you can read on-line for free if you follow the link) and so the PA guys know Scalzi at least professionally. But I think things are tied even tighter with Wil Wheaton just having played D&D with the PA guys - and Wheaton and Scalzi are friends. Talk about word of mouth - it's a veritable geek storm between those 3.

    • I really enjoyed Zoe's Tale when I read it a couple weeks ago.

      It really filled out some of the events that were important to plot of the Last Colony.

      I especially got a kick out of Zoe and her friend trying to adjust to a life with no electronics, no texting, no music, etc when the Colony was trying to hide by reducing their electronic emissions.
  • I literally just finished reading last colony on my kindle...was about to get online and buy Zoe's on Amazon...refreshed slashdot first, though, and this is the first thing I see. What a kwinkydink. I dont mind if it's going to be a rehash of Last Colony...there was plenty of space in that story for the details to be filled in with multiple other books.
  • SPOILER ALERT! Old man's war and the Ghost Brigades do not ask a key point. What does it mean to be human? Considering the concsisious transfere to some rather exotic bodies, what does it mean to be human? THis is conviently avoided with "THe colonial union has no position on this. Please consult the traveling religouus group." And no chartcer questions what it means to be human. There is so much that can be played with but the arthur dose not. Are turtles that live in space really human? Ye
  • The only thing I've tried by Scalzi is The Android's Dream, which according to WP is set in a different universe than Zoe's Tale. The problem I had with The Android's Dream was that it seemed to take international relations on Planet Earth and translate them verbatim into an interstellat context. Commodities are shipped between solar systems; sorry, but that doesn't make sense, because the amount of energy required to accelerate something to 0.01% of light speed would cost a ridiculous amount of money compa

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