Contrary to other oldtimers’ popular belief, there are good new science fiction writers out there. I like Asimov, Clarke, Herbert, Anderson, LeGuin, Niven, and Philip K. Dick as much as the next old fart, but if you look and give some of them a chance, you will find them. I recommend your local public library for starters.
Nick John Scalzi, who grew up near Los Angeles, moved to Ohio in 2001. That’s obvious from his obsession with writing about food in his novels. I know. Ohioans are more obsessed with food than the people in any other state in the country, and it rubs off. His first novel, Old Man’s War, was published in 2006, and the Ohioan influence is palpable. I like it.
The protagonist is one John Perry, a small-town Ohioan. [Some spoilers ahead] Several hundred years in the future, there’s this thing called the Colonial Union(CU). All Perry knows about it is what he and everyone else on Earth is told: that there are human colonies out there in space that are defended from unspecified aggressive aliens by the Colonial Defense Force. Earth isn’t part of the CU, but it does supply both its soldiers and its colonists. The latter come from Third World countries with excess population that they want to get rid of. The former come from First World countries, and the incentive is quite a deal, to Perry and millions of others.
If you sign up, at age 75 you report to your local Colonial Defense Force(CDF) recruiting station. You know that you will be taken off of Earth never to return, but that your consciousness will be transferred into a new, youthful body of about 19 years of age and you get to live your life again, in exchange for ten years of service in the CDF. After that, you get to live out the rest of your new life on a colony world. Present day armed forces recruiters must be having wet dreams over that enticement.
So Perry and his wife Kathy sign the contract, which includes a proviso that your DNA belongs to the CU if you die before the age of 75. Unfortunately, Kathy dies of a stroke before she reaches 75. When John Perry does, he says his farewells and reports for duty.
He’s taken away on a starship, which has some sort of Skip Drive(or warp drive) that’s good for a few hundred light years. He, and lots of others, get their new bodies. They’re clones, you see. Enhanced clones, with all sorts of superhuman powers: faster, stronger, greater information-processing abilities thanks to a cybernetic implant called BrainPal, cat’s eyes to see a broader spectrum, better hearing, and green skin so they can convert natural light to energy. Oh, they can still eat with gusto(Scalzi is living in Ohio, after all), and they have the sex drive of a 19 year-old. They can’t breed, however, because their chromosomes have been altered too much, and for a few weeks they get to just enjoy their new bodies and have an orgiastic good time.
Then it’s time to pay the piper. Our little corner of the galaxy is full of other intelligent species with about the same level of technology who are competing for a limited number of earthlike planets. There’s constant warfare. These other species are often faster or stronger or more vicious than normal humans, hence the need for these genetically altered soldiers, who are told their purpose is to defend humanity’s right to exist among the stars. No one on Earth, including governments, ever hears about any of this, because the CU absolutely controls all interstellar information flow, and they simply don’t share it, supposedly to spare Earths billions from panic. Besides, since the CU is doing a fine job of protecting Earth and providing new cool technologies every once in awhile, who really cares?
Perry goes through all sorts of adventures, starting with boot camp and ending with an encounter with the Consu, a race so much more technologically advanced than everyone else that they could wipe them all out if they wanted to, but don’t. Instead, they fight them at their own reduced technological levels for their own inscrutable reasons. There are hundreds of other competing intelligent species trying to expand, forming alliances and breaking them, trading and warring, like a 19th Century Europe or ancient Greek city-state colonial competition multiplied exponentially and gone mad.
The book dwells only minimally on fantastic technological details, and is a very fast read. One important subplot is Perry meeting a woman who was cloned in his dead wife’s image, but who has no memory of her, which leads us into the second book, The Ghost Brigades.
The woman in question, named Jane Sagan, is a brand new personality created by the activation of Perry’s wife’s clone, without the consciousness transfer. She’s only about four years old, but has an adult body. She, and others like her, or even more genetically enhanced than Perry’s people, and compose the CDF Special Forces. They do the dirty deeds even the regular CDF won’t do, and do them well. They are the perfect soldiers, though they resent the condescension they receive from the regular CDF soldiers because, well, they’re still just basically children. They get the same contract the regular Earthborn CDF soldiers get though, and can get a normal human body and become a colonist after ten years, though few of them take it. You really have to read the books to understand why; I’ve got to save some space here.
Jane is the protagonist in The Ghost Brigades, her platoon sent to foil a nefarious plot by an unmodified human, one Charles Boutin, to betray and potentially destroy the rest of humanity by giving the gift of consciousness to another species, the Obin, who were given intelligence but no sense of self for God knows what reason my the mysterious Consu, who ally with two other species to wipe out the Colonial Union. It’s another great, very fast-moving yarn, filled with wry humor. Boutin is defeated, his daughter Zoe survives and is taken back to the CU by Jane, and at the end we learn about something called the Conclave, an alliance of races which, according to the CU, is determined to wipe out humanity.
In the final book, The Last Colony, John Perry and Jane Sagan are married, their consciousnesses transferred to cloned normal human bodies, and happily living with their adopted daughter on a colony world called Huckleberry, of all things, even though most of its inhabitants are descended from Indians, on of whom is a delightfully argumentative lesbian named Savitra. Perry and Sagan are tapped by the CU, and specifically by the commanding general of the Special Forces, to head a new colony called Roanoke. The name is not coincidental.
The Conclave, you see, has vowed to destroy any new colony established by any race other than a member of the conclave, according to the CU. But no one outside of the CU’s upper echelons, and Jane, has ever heard of the conclave due to their control of information. Roanoke, unbeknownst to John and Jane, 2500 other colonists drawn from the colony worlds themselves for the first time instead of Earth’s Third World, and the crew of their transport ship, is to be hidden so that it can become a setup for the CU to destroy a Conclave fleet.
This happens, but Perry meets the leader of the Conclave fleet, and the founder of the Conclave, beforehand, and discovers that the Conclave is definitely NOT what the Colonial Union had described. Oh, no, this intelligent, compassionate alien wants to create a federation of different intelligent species in order to stop millennia of warfare and turn their focus to self-help and exploration. What follows is a brilliantly convoluted, wheels-within-wheels, scheme to change the future of not only humanity, but everyone else.
The recurring theme of all three books is that absolute power corrupts absolutely, on several different levels. There’s lots of humor to lighten things up and, of course, detailed descriptions of various repasts that only someone in Ohio would write about. Personally, I hope Scalzi continues the series, even though he says The Last Colony is the last one.
I doubt it. Popular demand and all that. Anyway, check it out if you’re a sci-fi fan, or just like a good read.
Book Cover, fair use