John Scalzi, Zoe’s Tale

Right up front let me say, this is a good book. But, it’s nominated for the Hugo, so being a good book is no longer in question. I’m not going to try to convince you its worth your time to get and read this book. The question now that its up for one of the big awards is, is it the best book of the year?

Scalzi is probably the best active writer at channeling the ghost of Robert Heinlein, writing in a breezy, fast-paced style that can keep you up late; but he does a change up on the Heinlein model by presenting capricious military government with significantly more circumspection and ambiguity of judgment.

And, yes, this is a fast-paced interstellar adventure, just like you’d expect from Scalzi. It’s witty and engaging, but with a thread of serious speculation and significant character development run through it, like you’d expect from Scalzi and demand from the “best” book of the year (as if there can be any one best book of the year). But, lots of people think this is the best book of the year, so I’ll pick some nits.

First, a plot hole you could drive a truck through. That’s the idea of taking away all of everyone’s electronics too keep the new colony of Roanoke hidden from hostile aliens. This plot device is handy for setting up the social structure of the colony, but doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny. First, there’s a shielded information center where computers can be used, but the shielding technology required is “rare enough that we only had enough of it for a converted cargo container.” Unfortunately for plot believability, the technology we’re talking about here is sheet metal. Second, lots of signal generators are let loose anyway. The colonists use “manual tractors”, presumably run off engines with spark plugs in them, and Zoe’s alien bodyguards keep their decidedly high-tech conciousness collars. Maybe this point is covered in The Lost Colony, a previous novel that covered the same events from a different perspective, but if so this is one (maybe the only) place where Zoe’s Tale fails to stand on its own as a novel.

A second weakness is more substantial. In the acknowledgments of the book and an interview at Tor’s website and blog posts, Scalzi has said the most important aspect of the book, at least for him as a writer, was writing it from the point of view of a 15-year-old girl. While he does capture the kind of spunky juvenile heroine that’s enjoyable to read, I have to say Zoe’s voice owes an awful lot to Scalzi’s own personal voice. Don’t believe me? Go read a few posts on Scalzi’s blog. Really, go read them. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. … Scalzi’s voice makes for an entertaining read, but after reading the Tor interview, I had been expecting something really unique.

So, that’s a couple of digs at what’s really a good book. In fact, its an excellent book. I’m glad I read it. But I can’t call it a contender for the best of the year.

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