Thursday, August 28, 2008

Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi

I've greatly enjoyed all of Scalzi's novels so far -- devoured them quickly, with great fondness and usually a sly smile on my face the whole time through. But, at the same time, the common universe of most of them -- what I guess we can call the "Old Man's War" universe -- has been annoying me more and more with each book, with implicit assumptions that keep leaping out of the text and slapping me in the face, like some rude halibut, before dropping back into the stream of consciousness.

(My apologies for that horrible metaphor.)

I've written about this universe here several times before: review-ish posts on Old Man's War, The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony, and "Ruminations on the Old Man's War"-iverse. Reading those again, I can see my discomfort with the unexamined assumptions of that universe -- or, to be more precisely, with the badly explained bases of that universe -- rising and rising as Scalzi wrote more and more in that setting but didn't deal with what I saw as the gigantic Chekov gun on the mantelpiece.

Zoe's Tale is essentially the other side of The Last Colony; it retells many of the same events, and is set in almost exactly the same time-frame, but focuses instead on Zoe Boutin Perry, the adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan. I might be obsessed with the background of the universe, but the real inherent problem of this book was Zoe -- it's written in her first-person voice, and she's a teenage girl with some major crises in her past (such as the death of her father and every other human she knew when she was very young). If Scalzi hadn't been able to write believably in Zoe's voice, the whole book would have fallen apart.

But he could, and it didn't: Zoe's Tale is just as slick and entertaining as Scalzi's earlier novels, with yet another series of plausible but unlikely events spun out in a master storyteller's voice. It's the thinnest and least of the Old Man's War novels -- and I do hope he keeps his promise to let the setting sit for a while, this time -- but it's still splendid SF entertainment, a story of good people feeling their way in a less-than-good world. (Though I still insist that the world is not nearly as bad as it should be, given Scalzi's premises.)

Again, the plot of this book is very much the same as the plot of The Last Colony, only from Zoe's point of view -- it begins on the new colony world Roanoke, flashes back a bit (earlier, I think, than Last Colony did), provides some more detail on events in Last Colony through Zoe's perspective and experiences -- in particular her deus ex machina alien diplomacy mission -- but ends pretty much where Last Colony did, for the same reasons and with the same people. It doesn't provide any major new information about this universe, though it does flesh out Zoe as a character considerably -- its major reason for existence is as a test bed for Scalzi to demonstrate that he can believably write a teenage girl.

At this point, I would normally be foaming at the mouth and complaining about the plausibility of the solar systems in this book, but I'm not. What helped me make peace with Zoe's Tale is a talk Sarah Monette gave at Readercon this year, in which she laid out a theory of fiction, on a continuum from Realism (stories that aim at a resemblance of the real world) on to Contrarealism (works that are set in worlds that both the author and the reader know are impossible). In between, Monette had two other modes of fiction: Pararealism and Surrealism. Surrealism is hard to define specifically, but we all pretty much know what it is: it thrives on juxtapositions and generally isn't meant to be taken as real in the first place.

Pararealism, though, is Monette's invention, and I think describes a useful strategy in fiction: elements that are not like real life at all, and yet are taken as realistic within the confines of a particular tradition or work. Sitcoms are intensely pararealistic, as is farce in general -- they're filled with things that are broad cartoons or stereotypes of human behavior, exaggerated to an extreme degree for the form, but accepted as real. Musicals are pararealistic, as are pornography and most comedians' stand-up routines.

Science fiction also can be quite pararealistic, despite all of the fannish mania for "hard science" and so on. FTL drives are impossible, as are time machines. Are they "grandfathered" into SF, or is it just that they're useful for telling certain types of stories, so we accept them? As the genre goes on and a body of standard furniture arises, those elements become pararealistic: things that we accept as real for the space of a piece of fiction. And when one reader (such as me) keeps complaining about those elements, it's because he is trying to read Pararealism as Realism. SF is less intrinsically Realist than it likes to pretend it is; even the really hard stuff has a lot of assumptions about human behavior that come right out of the '50s. And what Scalzi is writing isn't Hard SF in any of its flavors, despite a surface sheen (and the tendency of some readers to take any SF books with military hardware in them as Hard ipso facto) -- it's a kind of Space Opera of Manners, drawing heavily from the Galaxy tradition of the '50s (Frederic Brown, Robert Sheckley, and so on) and the continuation of that tradition through writers like Keith Laumer. Scalzi's Colonial Union is no more a working polity than Laumer's CDT was, and to expect it to behave as one is to misread the intentions of the book and the author.

Thus freed, I 'll be able to fully enjoy Scalzi's future novels without picking their premises apart -- at least I hope so. Sadly, this epiphany happened after I finished reading Zoe's Tale, so I spent much of my reading time with that book making tortured faces and trying to concoct a workable backstory in my head.

I still think The Ghost Brigades is Scalzi's best book, and I'd like to see himself stretch himself more in that area, to lay off the quick-talking smart-ass narrators who always come out on top of the situation and to try writing some people who can't talk their way through everything, and whose moral compasses either aren't absolutely infallible or aren't identical with the default reader's. But Zoe's Tale sees Scalzi doing again what he does well -- a bit too much "again," since it does retell his last novel quite closely -- and is just as engaging and diverting as his previous books.


Steve said...

Pararealism - wonderful concept! I guess when Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus - who has a fondness for beers from the Caledonian Brewery - lives, perforce, in a universe where that brewery's Deuchars IPA does not have "as drunk by Inspector Rebus" on the pump handle, that'd be pararealism, too. (and as for the beer Caley named after Rebus, don't even go there....)

Unknown said...


I enjoyed this a lot also, though I also am ready to see if he's able to write something significantly different (though I think his next book is a squel to "the Android's Dream")

Brad Holden said...

That metaphor was hysterical.

I just read The Last Colony and I was thinking that I would skip Zoe's Tale. I do feel like the narrators in every book are the same in some way, and it is the way you put your finger on (the fast talking, always right sort of way).
It is that aspect of Scalzi's writing that reminds me of Bujold (note I have not read her recent stuff). A narrator that seems to be always morally right, have little self doubt and can talk his or her way out of anything.

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