Engine of Imaginary Universes: The Novels of John Scalzi

Over the last 20 years, John Scalzi has emerged as one of the great science fiction authors of his generation. With a sharp sense of humor, a clever scientific imagination, and a flair for world-building, he has created several successful series and a number of acclaimed one-shot novels. Scalzi has explored multiple genres on science fiction, ranging from space opera to police procedurals. Scalzi’s novels have won acclaim and become a mainstay of many library collections, including CRRL’s. Enjoy this exploration of Scalzi’s series, and see what imaginary universes it may lead you to discover. 

Scalzi’s Standalones

Before he got started on the series that would define his literary career, Scalzi wrote an acclaimed standalone novel. Scalzi published his first novel, Agent to the Stars, opens a new window, in 1999, as a “test run” to see if he could publish a satisfying sci-fi book. It was originally published as a “shareware novel” on his website, where it can still be found. Agent to the Stars is a comedic science fiction novel about Tom Stein, a young Hollywood agent who finds himself with a very unusual client--Joshua, an alien. Joshua is a Yherjak, a foul-smelling blob who can telepathically fuse with animals and humans. The novel details Tom’s and Joshua’s many misadventures in a quest to gain acceptance for the Yherjak species on Earth. With biting humor and clever characterizations, Agent to the Stars examines the difficulties of cross-species communication and acceptance. 

Scalzi has since written two other acclaimed standalone novels. In 2011, Fuzzy Nation, opens a new window was published. A reboot of H. Beam Piper’s classic Little Fuzzy, Fuzzy Nation tells the story of Jack Holloway, a miner on the distant planet of Zara XXIII. Sent to obtain the valuable mineral “sunstone,” he also finds a group of catlike aliens he dubs “fuzzies” that have a primitive culture. He strives to protect them from the rapacious mining company ZaraCorp, which wants to exploit the planet before others learn about the fuzzies. Like Agent to the Stars, Fuzzy Nation tends to be a lighter and more humorous story than Scalzi’s series novels, but its darker moments and drama fit in well for a story that satirizes corporate greed and the question of who truly owns a planet.  Scalzi’s final standalone novel to date is Redshirts, opens a new window, a tale of the “disposable officer” characters that frequently appear in Star Trek episodes. Ensign Andrew Dahl joins the crew of the starship Intrepid and becomes disturbed as low-ranking officers die at an alarming rate on the crew’s missions. Can he solve the mystery of their high mortality rate, and why this particular starship is so prone to danger? Redshirts explores common sci-fi writing tropes to tell a sly parody of genre conventions and audience expectations. 

A Different Kind of Space Opera: The Old Man’s War Universe

Scalzi’s most famous (and arguably most acclaimed) series is Old Man's War, opens a new window. Seemingly a classic space opera, there are many unique aspects to the Old Man’s War universe, including the means of space travel. In Old Man’s War, faster-than-light space travel is accomplished not through a warp drive that speeds up the ship but by a “skip drive,” which moves a spaceship by punching a hole in the universe and placing the spaceship at a different destination in another universe that is effectively identical to the origin universe. Despite its amazing potential, the skip drive is poorly understood by most humans, including the main characters, lending an element of danger and the unknown to the concept of FTL travel. This sense of reconstructing a familiar space opera concept runs throughout Old Man’s War, Scalzi’s homage to vintage space operas such as Heinlein's Starship Troopers, opens a new window, that he read growing up. 

Unlike many space operas, Old Man’s War is a tale of a conflict fought not by the young and idealistic, but by the aged and jaded. After the death of his wife, retired advertising writer John Perry has little left for him on Earth in terms of family, community, or anything to look forward to. Her grave is the last thing on Earth he visits as he is then taken into space to fight for the Colonial Defense Force and given a new genetically engineered body to replace his aging natural one. Perry’s new body has superior eyesight, incredible strength, and nanomachine-enhanced blood, turning him into something beyond human in the cause of preserving humanity’s space colonies. Yet even his experienced mind is unprepared for the many strange battles and bizarre aliens he will encounter…

The Old Man’s War series has had six books published so far. After the first book came the second, The Ghost Brigades; the third, The Last Colony, opens a new window; the fourth, Zoe's Tale, opens a new window; the fifth, The Human Division, opens a new window; and the last to date, The End of All Things, opens a new window. Despite having few recurring characters, the series is strongly dependent on continuity between the novels and should be read in the order of its publication. Over the course of the plot, Perry discovers people from his former life he believed lost, battles an alliance of aliens opposed to humanity’s space expansion, and struggles with unexpected fragmentation of humanity’s unity. With exciting action sequences and surprising revelations about a dangerous universe, Old Man’s War will excite fans of both vintage Heinlein and newer space opera. Of all of his works, Scalzi tends to be most identified with the Old Man’s War series.  

A Dark Reflection: The Lock in Universe

Although still science fiction, Scalzi’s Lock In series is a genre shift for Scalzi, taking the form of a police procedural rather than a space opera. Written years before the current pandemic, Lock in, opens a new window can be read as a parallel to it--and a prediction of how an even more dangerous disease could change our society in the future. In the world of Lock In, a highly contagious virus spreads across the globe, causing flu-like symptoms in most of the afflicted, but reducing an unlucky one percent of the infected to become “locked in.” These people are fully conscious and awake, but unable to move their bodies, speak, or respond to the environment around them. Known as “Hadens,” they are unable to operate in society until a means is devised for Hadens to use robotic bodies known as “Threeps” to move about and interact with others.

The first book in the series, Lock In, tells the story of society as it has progressed 25 years after the pandemic. Some humans have been discovered to have the psychic ability to connect with Hadens, and they allow them to use their bodies. These individuals, known as “Integrators,” are seen as a much more natural and desirable way to reincorporate Hadens into society than the Threeps before them--until an Integrator is implicated in a murder. FBI agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann confront the difficulty of solving a murder where you don’t know who could be behind a killer’s mind, while considering the thoughts and desires of a population unable to communicate with the rest of society. Shane and Vann’s story continues in Head On, opens a new window as they investigate a game called Hilketa played by the Threep bodies of Hadens. Hilketa is played by decapitating a Threep and knocking its head in between goalposts. It was seen as a victimless means of relieving frustration until one of its star Haden players abruptly died during a game. Could there be some unforeseen problem with the Threep/human neural net, or is there a level of corruption within the Hilketa league that the outside world can’t comprehend? Scalzi uses the format of a mystery/thriller to explore themes of how subcultures are formed, the disconnect between different groups in society, and how humanity relates to technology. 

Fall of a Solar Empire: The Interdependency Trilogy

Scalzi’s latest ongoing series has been the Interdependency Trilogy. Beginning with The Collapsing Empire, opens a new window, it tells the story of a vast interstellar empire bound together by the Flow, an energy field that enables the only faster-than-light travel in the universe. Although invaluable to the Interdependency, the nature of the Flow is poorly understood by its people, and most trade is managed by vast corporations controlled by noble houses. As the story begins, Count Claremont, a physicist, calculates that the Flow will soon collapse, rendering much of the Interdependency unlivable without interstellar trade. Political intrigue begins as House Nohamapetan learns of the disruptions to the Flow and plots to assassinate the Emperox and overthrow the Interdependency. All the while, much of the empire, from noble houses to everyday citizens, remains skeptical of the Flow’s end, blissfully unaware of their civilization’s coming downfall. The story continues in The Consuming Fire, opens a new window and The Last Emperox, opens a new window, as plots are revealed, systems become disconnected from the Flow, and civil war erupts between the Emperox and her adversaries. The Interdependency Trilogy is a fascinating examination of the complexity of a galactic empire and how swiftly it could become undermined when one of its primary resources begins to fail.

Whether you’re interested in a lengthy space epic, a tightly plotted crime procedural, or a vivid single-novel adventure, you’ll find something to like in Scalzi’s novels. Scalzi is an author whose writing is influenced by vintage science fiction and infused with a dark, modern sense of humor. When you’re looking for a new adventure, you’ll discover it in John Scalzi’s novels, all of which can be found in CRRL’s collection.