Saturday, April 28, 2007

Ruminations on the "Old Man's War"-iverse

I've been reading John Scalzi's new novel The Last Colony this week [meaning "last week" -- Ed.], and thinking an awful lot (too much, I expect) about the background. I hope no one takes this as an attack -- I only worry this much about books I'm really enjoying -- but I'm sure, in the inevitable Internet fashion, that someone will misread me.

(This is why my post "Things That Annoy Me About Darkover" is still sitting in limbo months after I wrote it; I might post it someday, but I can't say when.)

Anyway, I wrote this list of questions about the universe of Old Man's War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Last Colony, mostly when I was only about a third of the way into the book. After finishing it, I went back through the list and added further thoughts (or answers) in bold italics. I tried to avoid spoilers for Colony, but if you're particularly sensitive to the things, go read something else. Also, if your opinions regarding "worldbuilding" at all resemble those of a Mr. Harrison of West London, you'll wonder why anyone would care if the background of a novel makes sense, and so this is probably not worth your time.

Oh, and, again: I question because I love. Really.
  1. I'm not sure if it's important or not that all of the planets seem to float randomly in space, unconnected to anything else. We never hear about the other bodies in those systems, and only rarely the names of their suns. Yes, habitable worlds will likely come only one to a system (where we find them at all), but surely the rest of those systems will have something of interest or use? Scalzi's space-travel system sometimes feels like a subway: it zips from one planet to another, with no reference to the intervening space. Is this a bug or a feature?
    I think this is just an indication of the story Scalzi wants to tell: it's about people on planets. (And maybe also is part of the Classic-SF flavor.)
  2. Similarly, in a galaxy this crowded, why is everyone so ridiculously focused on planets? There are plenty of other places to live, and, once you're already in space, they can be cheaper to make habitable, easier to hide, and at least as defensible.
    Somewhat answered by a character in the story, but, again, I think it's also that this is an old-fashioned kind of skiffy future.
  3. I am dumbfounded that there's even the possibility of "wildcat colonies." Surely there aren't any empty habitable worlds? The existence of those worlds implies, very strongly, that some part of The Accepted Explanation -- the galaxy is full of alien races, all competing with each other for basically the same planets, all basically at the same technological level, all essentially agreeing to fight in the same ways, some of whom must be gaining territory and some of whom must be losing it, all of whom operate as separate entities rather than forming Uplift-esque families -- is wrong. In a galaxy like the one this is supposed to be, every inhabitable planet would necessarily be inhabited now, have been inhabited for probably geological spans of time, and many of them would bear the marks of repeated acts of genocide by successive successfully invading races. The apparent plenitude of empty planets is really weird; if they're common, then the competition for them shouldn't be as strong.
    Asked and answered, from a different angle. I don't quite buy it, though. The multi-race civilization just doesn't feel as old, complex and alien as I'd expect; a galaxy this full should have been through every possible permutation of empire/federation/anarchy several times by now, and some of the races would be old enough to have lived through a few cycles of that.
  4. Unless (he thought, adding a conspiratorial note) no one has bothered to survey for habitable planets for some long period of time (since they already know where everything is), and the old survey is wrong, either by mistake or malice.
    Not quite the explanation Scalzi went for.
  5. Scalzi seems to be writing a kinder, gentler version of a Stephen Baxter universe, and I can't quite figure our why it would be kinder or gentler. It seems like there needs to be a reason why the struggle isn't much nastier and bloodier than it appears to be.
    Partially asked and answered, but...not to be overly bloody-minded about it, but there just isn't as much genocide in this universe as there should be.
  6. According to p.57 of Last Colony, there have been a lot of human colonies launched in the last twenty-five years. Who used to live on those worlds? Are the human Colonial Defense Forces really that good? Have they wiped out some alien race we're not told about? Or were all of those planets really empty? (And does that mean the other nearby races also have been colonizing a similar number of planets?)
    Asked and answered, later in the book.
  7. Oh, and, if there's any explanation as to why no alien race conquered Earth, slaughtered us all, and turned our home into their own colony some time in the last forty thousand years, I missed it. Again, in a galaxy this crowded and competitive, every inhabitable planet has got to be on the table.
    Answered by implication, later in the book.
  8. There's also the question of how big a planet is, which is often a problem in adventure SF. These planets don't feel all that big -- it's possible that's because they're only thinly populated, or populated in just a few spots, and they're expected to fill up over the next few centuries. It's never explicitly stated, but I imagine that one of the reasons to have as many colonies as possible is so that some of them can be lost to invading aliens without seriously damaging the human race. Or, possibly, the colonies are there to hold space before another race can grab it. (Which inevitably leads back to the question of why these empty planets are there to be grabbed.) But Scalzi explicitly says in Last Colony that new colonies only take about ten million people before they're more-or-less closed, and ten million people is tiny for a planet. (I'm writing this in a city that has that many people in it.)
    Never comes up; these planets do all feel quite small, and the newer colonies are tiny.
  9. This might just be me making up my own backstory, but the way this all makes sense to me is if there was recently (up to a final collapse four or five hundred years ago, say), a very powerful race holding a big piece of the galaxy and forbidding any of its rivals to interfere in its sphere of influence. If they took a long time to decay and wither from within (on the order of tens of thousands of years), that would allow Earth (and maybe other local intelligent races) to rise up on their own worlds and head out into space just in time for the big land rush we see in these books. But the timing, even if something like that was the case, would have to be awfully convenient.
    I shouldn't comment about what the explanations are, but I've probably been thinking too much along David Brin lines.
  10. On p.89, it's implicit that there are enough empty worlds in this local area that searching them all would be non-trivial. (Actually, given how easy space travel is in this series, I'd guess there must be either an astounding number of empty, habitable planets -- which is contrary to what we're explicitly told -- or that the characters are ignoring how easy it would be to search through a limited number of planets.)
  11. My, the Colonial Union has an unlikely stranglehold over all means of inter-personal communications, even for times of war. It's like there's no equivalent of the telephone in this society; even if the government censors all official communication (or especially if they do), there are going to be massive rumor mills and samizdat channels.
  12. And how is this government organized, anyway? Is there some vestige of democracy behind it? (I wouldn't expect more than one party, given the CU's control of all media.) We do see a society that runs far too efficiently to be a realistic single-party state. (And, given that Certain Folks claim this series is horribly right-wing, militaristic, and Heinleinian, I find it amusing that a very strong case can be made that the CU is a Stalinist dictatorship that actually works according to plan.)
  13. Oh, one last thing: how big is this section of the galaxy, which has over four hundred intelligent races, each with a number of colony planets? (Earth alone has seventeen, for example.) Add in all of the empty worlds, and...what kind of size are we talking about, here? Is this a small region with a lot of habitable planets, or a huge piece of the galaxy with inhabitable worlds much farther apart?

Last Colony does answer some of those questions, though not directly. I think I was asking the wrong questions about this universe, and Scalzi has said that he's not going to come back here quickly (if ever), so this was more pointless than most of my posts...

No comments:

Post a Comment