Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas

By: John Scalzi

Anyone who’s been attuned to the world of science fiction for very long knows exactly what a redshirt is.  For those of you who don’t, it’s a term applied to the ensigns on Star Trek who would join the officers on away missions.  Invariably, they would then die while on those away missions.

It’s with a serious nod to the idea of the “redshirt” that Scalzi wrote Redshirts.  It’s a story about a new recruit.  The new recruit is, of course, an ensign.  Quickly, he finds that there are some very strange things going on aboard his ship.  His crewmates seem to always find a way to be busy elsewhere when an officer is on the way to find “volunteers” for an away team.  And, more often than not, someone from that away team dies.  He and his friends dig into the phenomena and find something that is deeper than any of them could have imagined.

I can’t go on with the plot without giving away some major spoilers, so that’ll have to suffice to get you started.  The writing is typical Scalzi.  Well thought out, and not so full of technical jargon that it makes it hard for anyone but a scientist to read.  In fact, if there’s one thing that I like about Scalzi’s writing is that it’s not complicated, and reads very easily.  It makes it quick and enjoyable.  The structure of the book, a novel with three codas, is a bit odd.  Parts of me wonders if the “novel” part was a bit short for the publishers liking, and so Scalzi added in the codas to flesh it out some.  It’s possible that it was meant to be that way all along as some sort of experiment on Scalzi’s part too.  Either way, I found it odd.

Overall, the book was a fun read, with plenty of sci-fi humor and a good story and plot to help it along.  If you’ve enjoyed any of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War novels, you’ll likely enjoy this one too.


Fuzzy Nation

Fuzzy Nation

By: John Scalzi

In interest of disclosure, I was sent a review copy of this book by Tor, the publisher.  I’ll try my best to keep that out of the review.  I won’t make any such claims about my author-love of John Scalzi.  Got it?  Free book, no sway.  Author-love, sway.

Fuzzy Nation is, as Scalzi says, a “reboot” of Piper’s Little Fuzzy.  I’ve never read the original by Piper, so I can’t really speak to whether Fuzzy Nation takes a huge detour from the original or not, nor can I compare the two.  What I can tell you though is that it is a terrific story.  The plot cruises along and Scalzi does a wonderful job of hiding the motivations and important plot twists from the reader until they are absolutely necessary.  The writing, typical to Scalzi, is short on elaborate description and long on action and dialogue.  Neither of those, in my opinion, is a bad thing.  It lends to a book that reads quickly, and keeps the reader turning pages, and, also is what has gotten the name John Scalzi associated with the term “Bestselling”.

Having not read the original, I don’t know how much credit to give to Scalzi for the story itself.  Whether a majority of it came from Piper, or, from Scalzi, it was good.  A classical morality sci-fi tale about finding sentient life on a otherwise non-sentient planet and the reactions of those who would rather it stayed a non-sentient planet.

I think that, if you’re read the original, you really should read this “reboot”.  Really, even if you haven’t, you should read it anyways!  Another great novel from John Scalzi!

P.S. The original, “Little Fuzzy”, is available for free at Amazon for Kindle.

ADDED: Fuzzy Nation also has it’s own Power Ballad Rock Song by Paul and Storm.

The God Engines

The God Engines

By: John Scalzi

This is a very action/event driven book.  There’s very little of the thoughts of the characters being brought into play.  That lends itself to the short (novella) length, but takes away from the overall story.  Without giving any spoilers, the ending is a bit dismal, and I would have liked to have had the insight of the protagonists thoughts on the happenings.

It’s a very quick read.  The copy that I have is a first from Subterranean Press, which is a small custom press up in Michigan.  Unfortunately, the proofreading was a bit lacking in the development process.  There were a handful of grammatical errors throughout.  They didn’t take away from the story any, but were enough to make me pause while reading to make sure I figured out what was really said/meant.

The basic plot, spaceships that have captive gods for engines, is an interesting one.  I couldn’t help but think that the story was a bit of a narrative on religion by Scalzi.  I found the play between the characters to be well done, but I knew it would be as it always has been in everything that I’ve read by Scalzi.

Overall, the length of the book was a bit disappointing, but who am I to question the authors decision there.  If anything that just means that it was good enough that I wanted more.  An interesting concept, well written.  If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s worth the read.

The Last Colony

The Last Colony (Old Man’s War, Book 3)

By: John Scalzi

In many cases, a series of books is great up until you get to the last book whereupon it falls flat on it’s face as the author struggles to find a way to end it properly.  Luckily, Scalzi didn’t have this problem with this book.  The Last Colony finds a fitting ending to the Old Man’s War trilogy, tying up all of the characters and story lines in a tidy manner.

Like every other Scalzi book that I’ve read, this one was easy to read and flowed along naturally.  The characters that we grew to know in the first two books matured further within the covers and the universe expanded well.  As the title gives away, John and Jane, along with their adopted daughter, Zoe, find themselves as part of the establishment of a new colony.  The last human colony as it turns out.  At least in this story line.  Of course, much like everything else the CU does in each of these books, nothing is as it seems.  Quickly, the heat is turned up and we see John and Jane back in action again.

Scalzi leads us through some interesting reveals and plot twists throughout.  There were one or two that were a bit self-evident, but easily forgiven as the foreshadowing was done skillfully.

Overall, a good finish to the storyline.  I look forward to reading Zoe’s Tale, the fourth book in the series.  It takes place, roughly, in the same time-line as The Last Colony, but ends before The Last Colony does.  If you haven’t read any of this series, and are a fan of SF, you really need to get Old Man’s War and read them.  There’s a reason that Scalzi has the names Hugo and Campbell next to his name in most cases.

Just Write

There’s always a ton of writing advice floating around the internet, and there is certainly no shortage of books on writing.  I touched on that a little the other day in talking about a post by John Scalzi. One thing that they almost always have in common is the advice that you “just have to write”.  Always be writing.

In all honesty, I should be the last one spouting this advice about.  I’m one of those people who hasn’t made it a priority to find make the time to write. That’s the core difference I think.  If  you think of it as “finding” the time to write, you won’t.  If you, instead, think of it as making the time to write, you have a much better chance of actually doing some writing.  What you write, I think, doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that you wrote.  If, at the very least, you use a daily writing prompt of some sort to push you to write, that is a start.  It’s something.

Does it work?  Sure it does.  Looking back at my experience during NaNoWriMo last year, I can say for sure that it does work.  I won.  I wrote over 50,000 words in the month of November 2009.  Since then, when I didn’t have that extra little bit of external push?  I don’t have an official count, but my guess would be something around 10,000 words.  In eleven months.  Why?  Because I haven’t made the effort to write something everyday like I did during NaNo.

As November creeps closer this year, I’m beginning to prepare for NaNo again.   Things are busier this year, and I have a number of ready made excuses for not hitting that 50,000 mark.  But, I’m going to do it.  And then, I’m going to try and finish the year off strong.  Maybe not with a 50k a month writing habit, but maybe something like 10,000 words a month.  That’s less than 350 words a day.  I know that on a slower day in November I easily wrote 1000 words.  I can do it.

If you’re serious about becoming a writer, you’ve got to write regularly.  Make the commitment to it.  Do something like NaNo.  November is a busy month, so if it won’t work for you, try it in January or February.  Bust your word processors balls and write 50,000 words in a month.  I think you’ll be surprised where you make time to write.

Scalzi on Finding Time to Write

One of my biggest issues with writing is finding the motivation and time.  By which I mean finding the motivation to make the time instead of sitting down in front of the TV or reading.  Of course, most of the advice that you’ll find from established writers is that if you want to be a writer, you’ve got to write.  John Scalzi, a writer whose writing I admire, had some choice words for people like me today.

So: Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.

There’s plenty more in his post.  A bit of a tongue lashing reality check for aspiring writers everywhere.  A deserved one in most cases.  And goes back to one all important fact.  If you aren’t making time for something that you “want” to do, do you really want to do it?

It must be the day for this sort of advice too.  Tobias Buckell did a nice video on writing tools in which he says something along the same lines.


Some time ago, I mentioned a contest that John Scalzi was running and that I had entered it.  Well, the results are back, and I did not win.  Obviously, having not read any of the winning entries, I’m unable to tell you whether they were better stories or not.  But, since I didn’t win, I’m going to post the story here.

So, I leave you with P.U.C.K.

Wil pulled back on the reins of Tiger, his P.U.C.K. Squadron mount.  The genetics behind a Pegasus Unicorn Centaur Kitten caused them to be a little over zealous in battle, and a P.U.C.K. rider learned early to keep them restrained or quickly end up rolling in the rocks.  The ScalzOrc saw him coming, just barely in time to avoid the spear that Wil had thrust at him.  Damn ScalzOrc, Wil thought.  The ScalzOrc’s were a special breed of genetically engineered Orc warriors designed for one thing only; battle.  A perversion of natural laws, perhaps, but damned efficient.  Hell of a lot easier than breeding replacement armies.  Besides, Wil chuckled at the thought, who’d want to breed with an Orc anyways.  Not that they didn’t breed.  Someone had told him a story he’d heard about the breeding rituals of the Orc clans.  His disclaimer from then on has been strictly no explicit sex.  Unless it’s with his wife; in which case, he was all for it.  The ScalzOrc brought his shield around and blocked the spear.  The force brought to bear on the spear with a P.U.C.K. behind it knocked the ScalzOrc to the ground.  It rolled, then sprang up, already bringing it’s battle axe around in a high arc aimed at Tiger.
The P.U.C.K. darted to the side to avoid it, almost unseating Wil in the process.  Wil hadn’t had time to tighten his restraints to his saddle before taking off to answer the alarm.  He was still wearing the clown sweater and blue shorts that he’d gone to bed in.  Hadn’t had time to change either.  Normally, the alarms would have been sounded much earlier, but the unseasonal volcanic activity was disrupting the sensors.  If he had to guess, Wil would say the ScalzOrcs had something to do with that.  The momentum from the missed swing carried the ScalzOrc low and under the wing of Tiger.  It swung it’s shield up and the sharpened edge of it cut several of the feathers from Tigers wing.  Wil winced.  The P.U.C.K. had no feeling in the feathers, so there would be no pain, but it took months to grow the feathers back.  And P.U.C.K.s were notoriously vain.  Tiger screamed at the ScalzOrc and lunged after it.  The effort ripped the reins out of Wil’s hands.  An unrestrained P.U.C.K. was a bad situation.  It was as much of a threat to its rider and itself as it was to the enemy in most cases. Luckily, the clipped feathers gave Tiger a focus for all that power.  Tiger advanced quickly on the ScalzOrc, batting at it as it retreated.  It was forced to stop and stand its ground when it’s retreat was blocked by a lava flow.  It knelt to the ground and placed it’s axe at Tigers paws.
Tiger tossed his head, and the reins slid back down it’s neck where Wil could reach them.  With Tiger back under control, Wil gave him the command to hold.  Wil stepped down off of Tiger and moved up to stand beside the P.U.C.K.s enormous kitten head.  “Do you surrender, ScalzOrc?”  It was an insult to the ScalzOrc to even suggest surrender, which is why Wil asked.  The ScalzOrc glared at Wil, but didn’t answer.  Wil continued.  “Very well, then.  I don’t suppose you’d like to gamble for your life?  Doesn’t matter.  We’re going to do it anyways.”  Wil pulled a small black velvet pouch from his saddle bag.  It was a matter of pride that each of the P.U.C.K. riders carried their own dice.  His were an heirloom that was handed down from his grandfather to his father and then on to him.  He loosened the tie and dumped the dice into his palm.  They had twenty sides, and were crafted from crystal clear, and thus very rare, Dilithium crystals.  “There are 20 sides to each die, ScalzOrc.  If I roll two twenties, I’ll let you live.  Anything less, and I’m letting tiger finish what he started.”  Wil closed his palm loosely over the dice and began to shake it back and forth.  The dice lightly chimed against each other.  “Wait!” the ScalzOrc took a step forward and was about to take another when Tiger reminded him that he was there.  Wil stopped shaking the dice.  “Just wait.” The ScalzOrc stepped back to where he had been standing. “If I am to die, I want to die honorably;  Not at the hand of fate.  And certainly not by whatever means that genetic mess you call Tiger has in mind.”  Wil put a hand on Tigers shoulder to help stay him.  Calling a vain animal a genetic mess was nearly as bad as clipping a few of it’s feathers.  “You shouldn’t be calling anything a genetic mess, ScalzOrc.  You aren’t exactly a pure genome yourself.”  The ScalzOrcs were known to be a bit sensitive about the means in which they are created, and Wil didn’t mind putting a thumb in that wound.  “Allright, I’ll give you your honorable death.”  The ScalzOrc looked surprised that Wil had agreed to change his plans.  “Thank you.  My people, for what we lack in a personal history, have come to associate with the Volcanos that come and go on this planet.  I would like to be dropped into the volcano.”

The air above the volcano cone was hot.  Wil was already sweating heavily under the clown sweater that he hadn’t had a chance to take off, and they’d only been above the volcano for a few minutes.  He wanted to get as close to the center of the cone before he dropped the ScalzOrc in.  Less chance of any tricky business on the way down.  He’d tied the ScalzOrcs arms and legs before mounting Tiger and having the P.U.C.K. pick him up in his claws.  As they reached the center of the cone, Wil nudged Tiger, giving him the sign to drop his cargo into the volcano.  The ScalzOrc fell, twisting in the air as he went.  Wil had to admit that it was admirable that the ScalzOrc didn’t even scream as he dropped to his death.  The ScalzOrc dropped into the Lava at the center of the volcano.  A brief flame burst up and quickly died out.  Wil pulled Tiger into a turn and pointed him towards home.  The lights of the compound glimmered in the distance.  A second flame burst caught Wils eye.  He looked down just as lava flowed away from something rising from its depths.  A door opened on the device, and the ScalzOrc rose up from the lava and entered it.  Before he ducked into the door, he turned and gave a short wave to Wil.  The door closed behind him and the device sunk back into the volcano’s depths.

Wil recorded to memory everything he’d seen.  He’d have to give a full report to his commander when he returned.  It seemed the ScalzOrcs had figured out how to modify their genetic structure to be highly heat resistant.  And the theory that they may have something to do with the volcano eruptions might have more truth to it than many had thought.  Wil gave Tiger a bit of a nudge and the P.U.C.K.s wings beat a little bit faster.  It was already a long night, and it was about to get much longer.

I hope you like it.

Couple of Quick Notes

If your interested, I wrote a book review for a book called “Why are we so clueless about the stock market” over on my personal finance blog, Beating Broke.  I don’t read a whole lot of non-fiction, but I occasionally get a review copy in and do reviews then.  Also, if you’re at all interested in personal finance, you might find a thing or two to read.

Second note.  I don’t think I mentioned it here, but John Scalzi was holding a short story contest of sorts.  The deadline was June 30, 2010, so if you hadn’t heard about it before now, you’ve missed it entirely.  I did manage (with only about 5 minutes to spare) to get my entry in.  I don’t think it’s my best work, and it probably could have used a bit more editing, but it is what it is  and there’s no do-overs now.  They aren’t asking for exclusivity, so I’ve been thinking about posting my entry here.  Not sure yet, anyone have any thoughts on that? The winner, besides getting some nice prizes, also gets their story printed in a short chapbook of other authors stories.  All of the stories will be based on the same prompt (which you can see at the contest post linked above), so it should be interesting to see how others took the plot and such.

I took the route of a fanfic parody of sorts.  Threw in some stuff that I thought was funny anyways.  They haven’t really announced a end date other than to note that they plan on publishing the chapbook sometime in late summer or early autumn.  So, maybe late July or early August?  Either way, it was fun to write, and I hope I win.

That’s it for now.  I’m headed off to vacation on a nice quite beach somewhere in Minnesota next week, so if the weather turns sour, I might get some extra reading in.  Otherwise, I’m sure the kids won’t let out of the water long enough to do any reading.  Sun and fun!

The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades (Old Man’s War #2)

By: John Scalzi

Old Man’s War Review

When I finished Old Man’s War, I immediately put my order in for The Ghost Brigades.  I’m glad that I did.  This is the second book that I’ve read by Scalzi, and I have not been dissappointed.  Enough so, that I ordered a copy of The God Engines and will have The Last Colony on it’s way fairly soon.  Scalzi has an incredible mastery of the English language.  One that is a wonderful pleasure to read.  Many times, I find myself stopping and thinking about what little twist of the wording he used and how I would have never thought to have put it that way.  But, once you’ve seen it that way, you can’t imagine it any other way.  But, enough about the author.  Let’s talk about the book.

When we leave Old Man’s War, the protagonist (one of) is retiring and moving on to a colony while his love ends up in the Ghost Brigades.  The Ghost Brigades is the nickname given to the special forces who are direct clones that have been heavily modified.  They don’t have an existing “soul” like the realborn soldiers and as such, many of the ethical roadblocks are eliminated.  They are able to test new modifications, and send them places that not even the realborn would bother to go.

We pick up at the beginning of this book with an important meeting of some commanders in the CDF (Colony Defense Forces), in respect to a dead scientist that isn’t really dead.  Seems he built a clone of himself and then staged a suicide, so that he could defect to help three alien races combine forces to declare a unified war on the human race.  And with that, we’re off and running.  The book follows the short life of Jared, a special forces soldier from his “birth” to his death.  Along the way, we learn a great deal about the relationship between the realborn soldiers and the special forces, and why the special forces are separated from the rest of the forces.  Much like Old Man’s War, Scalzi touches on several topics of ethical nature as well as what it would mean to have an adult consciousness while you’re still only a year or two old.

Ghost Brigades is only about 50 pages longer than Old Man’s War, and is just as quick a read.  The tempo of the novel is steady, with no slow spots.  As I noted, the writing is wonderful.  And even without the great story to back it up, the book would be worth reading for the writing alone.  But, Ghost Brigades is one of those select few books that has both.  In fact, all of Scalzi’s novels I’ve read have that.  I highly recommend that you pick up Old Man’s War (if you haven’t) and start there and then move quickly on to The Ghost Brigades.  Especially if you like science fiction.

Old Man’s War

Old Man’s War

By: John Scalzi

Truthfully, science fiction has been pretty sparse in my reading list as of late.  Instead, it’s been laden with lots of fantasy.  I’m not going to complain.  If it hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have discovered books like Name of the Wind.  But, my roots are in science fiction.  I cut my roots on Asimov’s robot series’ before moving on to some of the more delicate stuff by the likes of Heinlein.  (By delicate, I mean what I consider to be not hard scifi.) So, with a mind to read more of the science fiction side of the scifi/fantasy realm, I began a search for some of the better scifi writers out there.  Inevitably, Scalzi’s name came up.  And with it, the Old Man’s War series, of which Old Man’s War is the first.

From the back cover blurb:

John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.

It’s obvious, then, where the title comes from.  It’s a tale of the old, their lives used up on Earth, joining the Colonial Defense Forces in hopes of a renewed youth.  With only the vaguest of rumors promising a better (not old) life, the senior citizens join the CDF and become the fighting force of the future.  The story follows John Perry through his enlistment, into the “changes” that are made to him and the other recruits, and then on into battle and beyond.

You’ll read everywhere that Scalzi’s writing is comparable to Heinlein’s writing.  True.  Scalzi has a way with the written word that solidifies the story and leads the reader on.  It creates a story that is easy to read and that you want to keep reading until it’s done.  The story is much less about the actual science behind it all, although it gets a fair bit of billing, and more about the human response to the science.  We’re taken on a journey as people who have already lived a full life on Earth are, essentially, given a new life adjust to their surroundings and overcome their preconceived notions about what can and can’t be done.  It carries on into their life as troops, but with action scenes that are quickly overshadowed by the undercurrent of humanity.  (I’m sounding a bit syrupy, I know.)  Nevertheless, if you are looking for a spectacularly written science fiction novel for no other reason than good science and well written battles, you won’t be disappointed.

What I found most impacting is the realism that Scalzi gives the story.  There are no smoke and mirrors, but instead, we are shown how it really might be; Blood, Guts, and Gore.  There are few cookie cutter elements in a science fiction novel that are more horrible than the eminently evil space alien.  Scalzi does well in avoiding that trap and several others.

Overall, the novel is a good to great science fiction novel.  It’s an excellent novel in total.  The one downside that I felt was that it was a bit short.  Part of this is likely due to it’s paltry 320 pages as compared to some of the 600+ page fantasy epics that I’ve been reading lately.  But, I also felt that there were some elements that could have been expounded on.  Either way, I’ll be picking up the next book (Ghost Brigades) and reading it.  In fact, it’s already on it’s way via Paperbackswap!