In "Zoë's Tale," It's Hard to Be a Teenage Messiah

Zoë's Tale, the last book in the Old Man's War sequence by John Scalzi, has just been nominated a Hugo for best novel. It deals with the harrowing complications of interstellar politics and teenage girls.

For those of you unfamiliar with Scalzi's previous novels in this series, a quick recap. Humanity has reached the stars to find the neighborhood teeming with other races all vying for the same planets to colonize. The Colonial Union governing all the human worlds except Earth has a tight monopoly on all travel, commerce, and information between the colonies. The home world is kept ignorant technologically and politically. Mother Earth is just the CU's breeding ground for more colonists, mostly from the Third World, and cannon fodder for their endless wars. The Colonial Defense Force doesn't draft witless eighteen-year-olds to do their dirty work. They want educated volunteers with life-experience who no longer fill useful roles in dirtside society.

On his seventy-fifth birthday John Perry leaves Earth to fulfill his contract with the CDF expecting never to return. He and his fellow septuagenarian are shortly amazed to find themselves in young healthy bodies. CDF soldiers wear cloned flesh with augmented abilities covered in chloroplast imbued skin. These old fogies are now mean green fightin' machines armed to the teeth facing alien armies over hotly contested planets, "Get off my lawn, you tentacled scum!"

This series has often been compared favorably with Starship Troopers, although Scalzi treads a bit lighter on the soapbox than Grand Master Heinlein and has a superior sense of humor. If you haven't read Old Man's War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Last Colony you are in for a treat. Zoë's Tale is more of a companion novel than a sequel and works fine as a stand alone story. It recounts the events from The Last Colony but from the viewpoint of John Perry's seventeen-year-old adopted daughter Zoë and is the stronger novel for it.

The story opens as John and his wife, Jane Sagan a former Special Forces officer, have retired from the CDF in new demilitarized bodies living as rural colonists with their daughter. Zoë's biological father was Charles Boutin, a scientist who schemed with an advanced race called the Obin against humanity. The Obin were uplifted to sentience by the Consu, a godlike and enigmatic species who gave the Obin intelligence without consciousness, then kicked them to the galactic curb without explanation. Boutin offered the Obin a technology that would give them all individual consciousness and emotion in exchange for wiping out the CU whom he believed responsible for Zoë's death.

Of course Zoë wasn't dead, the plot failed, Boutin was killed, but the technology worked. To honor Boutin for his miraculous gift the Obin made a truce with the Humans and sent two of their kind to protect and serve Zoë, whom they revere with something akin to worship. Her two bodyguards, Hickory and Dickory – she named them when she was very young – vaguely resemble a cross between a giraffe and a tarantula, carry huge knives and scare the bejeesus out of everybody. They treat her like a beloved magic princess but she still has to do homework and chores and junk, bummer. Clearly the girl has issues.

Naturally, a quiet pastoral life is not in the cards for this odd but loving little family. The growing populations of the older established colonies pressure the CU to continue spreading out into an increasingly dangerous galaxy. Because of their leadership skills and military record John and Jane are asked to lead a brand new colony called Roanoke. I know, why not just call it Certain Doomsylvania? At least their ship isn't named the Titanic. Immediately things go terribly wrong. The tiny colony is cut off from the rest of the CU deprived of advanced technology on a world with an incompatible biology and a savage native species. A Conclave of a hundred hostile races patrols space sworn to destroy any further human colonization. And oh yeah, the whole planet smells like a stinky locker room.

As young people do, Zoë adapts quickly to this difficult new life. She, her wise-cracking pals, and her absolutely dreamy boyfriend, Enzo, manage to have fun when they can while working alongside the adults for Roanoke's survival. Zoë inherited Boutin's brilliance as well as her adopted father's relentless,sarcastic wit and Jane's fierce determination and resourcefulness. Good thing too, because she's going to need all that and more to save herself and the new colony.

I wondered if it was very realistic to have a heroine that young be so clever and observant while spouting off with Scalzi's trademark sarcasm. Some readers might think that a brilliant and resourceful young Messiah of an alien race who Saves the Day with blatant Deus ex Machina has it a bit too easy. But Zoë's Tale isn't really about the clash of mighty empires or rescuing loved ones from monsters, exciting as those parts are — it's about Zoë. It's about that time in our lives after we've come to grips with how the world sees us but we are still not sure how we see ourselves. It's not about what you are, but finding out who you are. This whip-smart, often funny, and deeply moving novel portrays that journey of self-discovery to the satisfaction of adults young or otherwise.

Zoë's Tale via Amazon

This month, io9 reviews all the nominees for the Nebula, Hugo and Clarke awards. You can read them all here.

Commenter Grey_Area is known among the space-cruising whipper-snappers as Christopher Hsiang. Why can't you young punks let an old man read in peace?!