Friday, August 21, 2015

Book Review: The End of All Things

The End of All Things
John Scalzi
Science fiction

So, speaking of cover quotes, here are the top three from John Scalzi's latest novel. 
"More evidence that Scalzi is a master at creating appealing commercial fiction."
"If anyone stands at the core of the American science fiction tradition at the moment, it is Scalzi."
"Keeps the pages turning ... Scalzi is one of the slickest writers that SF has ever produced."
All three of these are, in fact, spot-on. 

If that sounds like a lead-in to a bad review, disabuse yourself of that notion. Scalzi is one of a very few genre writers whose work I'll buy immediately in hardcover, no questions asked. The phrase "core of the American science fiction tradition" aptly expresses why: John Scalzi is a pure SF writer in the classical John W. Campbell/Isaac Asimov tradition. He takes an interesting idea and uses it as a springboard for a ripping good yarn. He's not trying to be post-postmodern or self-aware or edgy or literary or transgressive or Blade-Runnerish or dystopian or anything-punk or anything-core.

He's writing science fiction, period. I wish there were more like him.


It always seems to me that John Scalzi is a five-star writer who produces four-star books. That is, he has great ideas, and he writes great stories, but the story doesn't always fully flesh out the idea. His recent Lock-In is a case in point. It's a cracking science-fiction thriller with an intriguing premise, and the denouement is a logical consequence of that premise--but not a surprising consequence, not a radical consequence, not an eye-opening or a thought-provoking or an open-ended consequence; it's arguably something of a gimmick consequence. It's as if, say, Larry Niven had created the Ringworld, then used it to tell a story that could have been set on any standard alien planet.

Look: being compared to Ringworld is not an insult. I think John Scalzi has a Ringworld in him. The End of All Things isn't it. As for what it is, it's a straight sequel to The Human Division. If you liked that, you'll like this. If you haven't read The Human Division, do yourself a favor and read that first; if you have, rereading it wouldn't hurt. And if you haven't read anything of the Old Man's War sequence, do start with Old Man's War itself.

The specific strengths of The End of All Things are pure Scalzi, and include:

  • Opening sentence: "So, I'm supposed to tell you how I became a brain in a box."
  • Space pirates!
  • Politics.
  • Snappy dialogue.
  • A resolution to several ongoing story arcs.
The specific weaknesses are also pure Scalzi:

  • All the characters, even the aliens, sound the same. In fact, they all talk (judging by his website) rather like ... John Scalzi.
  • The ending is a touch of an anticlimax, given that it's something that everyone could have agreed to do on page 1.
OK, you know what you're getting. If you like "pure drop" science fiction, go read some John Scalzi. And if you don't ... why not?


  1. He got me with his opening. I mean, how can you beat getting shanghai-ed by space pirates to become disembodied brains? The first of the stories was by far the best in my opinion. I almost think of them (and The Human Division) as collected shorts, rather than a novel.

    1. They do have that fix-up feel, don't they?