The back half of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series contained decidedly experimental volumes — the alternate-POV Zoe’s Tale, and the serial-format books discussed in this review, The Human Division and The End of All Things. They progress essentially chronologically, but through the viewpoint of several humans and non-humans. Dealing with the fallout from the events at the end of the third book The Last Colony, the human-governed Colonial Union (CU) and its military arm, the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) must contend with the recently enlightened citizens of planet Earth. No longer are they naive to galactic politics, and no longer do they view the CU as a completely benevolent entity that allows them a second chance at life after the age of 75. Instead, they know the truth, which is that they are farmed, both as colonists and soldiers, to a life in space that is difficult, bloody, and more often than not, fatal.
The Human Division grapples with the rift between the “birthplace of humanity” and the much larger corps of humans that are the more visible front to alien species. The CU is aware that without the Earth, their policies must change significantly. Meanwhile, the alien coalition called the Conclave is courting the Earth, seeking to strike a blow against the CU. At first, this is an issue that is being negotiated through standard diplomatic procedures on all sides, but then it starts to seem that there is another party in play that is actively attempting to sabotage both the CU and the Conclave and pin it on the other. This organization seems technologically advanced, privy to high-level insider information from both camps, and steadfastly willing to use any tactics necessary to take them down.
The End of All Things resumes after a catastrophic event that was engineered by the guerrilla organization, an event which destroyed any chance of reconciliation between Earth and the CU. As much as the Conclave would love to jump on the opportunity, they also realize that might be all the impetus that the CU needs to declare war. Furthermore, there is growing evidence to support that both sides do have this common enemy and aren’t just secretly skirmishing with each other. While the alien races of the Conclave still are wary of humans at best due to the CUs shoot first, ask questions later policy, Conclave leadership finds that it may be willing to enter something of an alliance with the CU/CDF to uncover the saboteurs, particularly as lives continue to be lost.
These two books signify a tonal shift away from the military-and-defense focus of the first half of the series by highlighting the diplomatic strategies on all sides that keep these powers at peace, even in the face of provocation. Multiple POVs come courtesy of one of the CUs lead diplomatic teams, and much attention is given to the consequences of humanity’s extended policy of manifest destiny. If you read a lot of sci-fi, all of these themes will be familiar, but if you have also read any Scalzi, you should have a good idea of how he’s able to put a fresh spin on those tropes. Additionally, knowing what I do about the SF/F and general geekworld spats with feminism of the last few years, it’s both amusing and gratifying to see how Scalzi has incorporated some of those topical ideas into these recent novels. From genderless aliens who come with their preferred pronouns, to a general savvy of how to include women and not be garish or self-congratulatory about it, Scalzi is committed to advancing the genre. I’m happy to commend books that are entertaining, well-written, and progressive.
Overall, I’m gratified to have finally read the series. In retrospect, it is one of the more even SF/F series (more specifically, I’m considering “series” to be longer than three books) I’ve read, in that for me, there weren’t any duds and each book provided standalone entertainment while advancing the overall plot. I highly recommend all of it.