Book Revew: Redshirts by John Scalzi

redshirtsRecently Eris and I were talking about dealbreakers, things that ruin a story for us and make us drop a book. One of the things she mentioned was pointless death being something that made her run for the hills.

Appropriate, I suppose, that right before that conversation I had started reading Redshirts, a book wherein the “pointless” deaths are actually the entire point of the plot.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the terminology, a “redshirt” is “a stock character in fiction who dies soon after being introduced. The term originates from the original Star Trek (NBC, 1966–69) television series in which the red-shirted security personnel frequently die during episodes. Redshirt deaths are often used to dramatize the potential peril that the main characters face.” (thanks, Wikipedia!)

It is almost impossible to talk about this book without spoiling the hell out of it, because so much of what makes it work is essentially a giant plot spoiler. However, I will do my best, because Redshirts is one of the funniest, most entertaining science fiction books I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

Continue reading

Book Review: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

fuzzy-nationUntil my friend gave me Fuzzy Nation for Christmas, I had never heard of Little Fuzzy, nor had I heard of an author “rebooting” another’s work. Happens all the time in movies, but I had never heard of it happening with novels.

From the author’s acknowledgement, it seemed like Scalzi was just as interested in paying homage to the original story as he was in making it his own. And after reading it, I have to say not only did he make it his own, but he’s piqued my interest enough that I’d like to find the original and give it a go.

Synopsis courtesy Goodreads:

Jack Holloway works alone, for reasons he doesn’t care to talk about. Hundreds of miles from ZaraCorp’s headquarters on planet, 178 light-years from the corporation’s headquarters on Earth, Jack is content as an independent contractor, prospecting and surveying at his own pace. As for his past, that’s not up for discussion.

Then, in the wake of an accidental cliff collapse, Jack discovers a seam of unimaginably valuable jewels, to which he manages to lay legal claim just as ZaraCorp is cancelling their contract with him for his part in causing the collapse. Briefly in the catbird seat, legally speaking, Jack pressures ZaraCorp into recognizing his claim, and cuts them in as partners to help extract the wealth.

But there’s another wrinkle to ZaraCorp’s relationship with the planet Zarathustra. Their entire legal right to exploit the verdant Earth-like planet, the basis of the wealth they derive from extracting its resources, is based on being able to certify to the authorities on Earth that Zarathustra is home to no sentient species.

Then a small furry biped—trusting, appealing, and ridiculously cute—shows up at Jack’s outback home. Followed by its family. As it dawns on Jack that despite their stature, these are people, he begins to suspect that ZaraCorp’s claim to a planet’s worth of wealth is very flimsy indeed…and that ZaraCorp may stop at nothing to eliminate the “fuzzys” before their existence becomes more widely known.

First off? I loved Jack. He’s a very interesting character in that he’s not exactly a “good” guy—he has a lot of traits that wouldn’t fall under that banner—but you still end up rooting for him. He’s got a great sense of humor, and the back and forth between him and his contact at ZaraCorp at the beginning was a lot of fun to read.

For example, look at this exchange after Holloway accidentally causes the cliff collapse, which he attempts to claim is an earthquake:

“Who are you going to believe,” Holloway said. “I’m here. They’re there.”

“They’re here with roughly twenty-five million credits’ worth of equipment,” Bourne said. “You’ve got an infopanel and a history of bad surveying practices.”

“Alleged bad surveying practices,” Holloway said.

“Jack, you let your dog blow shit up,” Bourne said.

I also loved that all the stuff on the back cover of the book happened within the first three chapters. It meant I had no idea where the story was going to go next (particularly since I’d never read the original), and I adored it, because a lot of the fun of the novel was in the discovery of it. Very little went the way I expected, which was a nice surprise.

Also, the Fuzzy family? Some of the most adorable potentially sentient beings ever put on paper. You just want to squeeze them. Their interactions among themselves, with the humans, and with Carl the dog are just great. You can’t help but fall in love with them, and soon you’re just as invested in their safety as Jack and his friends are.

If there were any failings, it was that sometimes I felt a bit removed from Jack—like I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on in his head or how he felt about some of the events of the story. This might be for a couple of reasons: one, that he’s not an overly emotional guy, or two, that he was making up his big plan and in order to surprise the reader, he couldn’t think about it. It did occasionally make me feel like there was a wall between us, though.

If you haven’t read Scalzi before, I would say either Old Man’s War or Fuzzy Nation is a good place to start. I might edge toward Old Man’s War just because it is his first book, but Fuzzy Nation is just as good (maybe even better in some respects).

It balances being laugh-out-loud hilarious with some absolutely heartbreaking scenes, and it kept me reading for an entire day when I intended to only read it for an hour. If you’re a sci-fi fan, put it on your TBR list.

A to Z Challenge – O is for Old Man’s War

old-man's-warThis is one of those rare times I’ve picked up a book not because I read the synopsis and it sounded good, but because I enjoyed the author so much on the Internet I pretty much had to buy at least one of their books to support them in being awesome.

I’ve been following John Scalzi on Twitter for the better part of a year and reading his Whatever blog on and off for longer than that. He’s consistently funny, thoughtful, and down-to-earth, and at some point last year I finally decided I needed to, you know, actually read his books.

So I picked up Old Man’s War at the bookstore over Thanksgiving, figuring if I was going to start with his stuff, I was going to start at the beginning.

And I’m happy to report that I might enjoy Scalzi’s science fiction more than his hilarious Twitter posts. And that’s saying something.

John Perry is a man who is ready for a new life. His wife has been dead for eight years, his son has grown up, and so at age 75, John joins the army, specifically the Colonial Defense Force.

You see, humans have started colonizing the galaxy, but we aren’t the only sentient race out there, and habitable planets aren’t exactly plentiful. So we’re in a constant war with other races to expand. And it’s the CDF’s job to protect and defend human colonies from alien invaders.

Old Man’s War starts the day Perry joins the military, and we jump onto the ride with him. He’s a fun and funny narrator with a good sense of humor (sometimes subtle, sometimes less so), perfect for introducing us to the strange new world beyond the borders of Earth.

I hesitate to say too much about what you find, because that’s half the fun of this novel: the discovery process, the revelation of something new with each and every page. Scalzi’s built a great universe for us to explore, and it’s a joy to do so.

I loved the way he had me grinning at one page and then punched a hole in my gut the next. It’s actually amazing how he handled the deaths in the book (because it’s a book about war, this is hardly a spoiler). There was something stripped-down and bare about their descriptions that made them all the more poignant, even without accompanying angst from our narrator.

One of the things I loved most about the book was how easy it was to read. This might sound like a strange thing to praise, but after Endymion and If on a winter’s night a traveler, I was tired of books that stuck me with pages-long paragraphs and detailed descriptions and philosophical arguments to make your head spin.

Old Man’s War did not have that problem, and it was like a breath of fresh air. I practically devoured the book, and it was such a nice change of pace after reading two books in a row that felt like they required an advanced degree to understand.

That’s not to say Old Man’s War skimps on the science or even on the explanations of the technical stuff. But Scalzi (rather brilliantly, I thought) breezes past the how (“You don’t have the math”), giving us just enough to understand what’s going on without getting overwhelming.

Some people have said Scalzi is reminiscent of Robert Heinlein—and being as that I’ve read only one Heinlein book, I won’t argue. However, Old Man’s War reminded me a little bit more of Ender’s Game, only with old farts instead of six-year-old children.

If I had one complaint about this book, it’s that it’s a little more episodic than I anticipated. Perry’s goal is really just “join the army and survive”; there’s not really an overarching story question from what I could peg. But it’s well-written enough and otherwise enjoyable enough that it didn’t bother me too much.

If you enjoy science fiction and you haven’t read Old Man’s War, add it to your list. Hell, even if you don’t enjoy science fiction but are willing to give the genre a go, pick it up. It’s a great read for longtime sci-fi fans and newbies alike.

And while you’re at it, follow Scalzi on Twitter. You won’t regret it.