The End of All Things
The End of All Things, John Scalzi’s latest novel in the “Old Man’s War” universe, is comprised of four novellas, available online or in traditional book form, as I read them. Together, they tell a story that would have been much harder to tell from one point of view. It’s about a threat of Armageddon on Earth and the conflict that affects the entire populated universe of this future.
The first part, The Life of the Mind, is told by a being who starts out by saying “So, I’m supposed to tell you how I became a brain in a box.” He tells about how he realized he no longer had a body, from the perfect darkness and silence to the fact that “I couldn’t taste my mouth.” Then he tells about finding out why he no longer has a body, when a voice tells him “we’ve integrated your brain with the Chandler. The ship is now your body. You will learn how to control your body.” Each day the brain, formerly a human named Rafe Daquin, is required to run simulations, and at night the only entertainment he is provided is to run the same simulations. “So I did what anyone doing a simulated run does when they’re bored and there’s no penalty for misbehavior: I started wrecking things.” Eventually he crashes the simulation system and discovers that he can get into the system that controls the ship. He spends two weeks creating what he calls a blue pill:
“I created an overlay for the Chandler’s computer system. A just about exact replica.
I copied it, tweaked it, attached everything coming in from the outside to it, as well as the bridge simulators. It looked like, responded like, and would control things like the actual computer system for the Chandler.
But it wasn’t.
That system, the one that actually ran the Chandler, was running underneath the copy. And that one, well.
That one, I was totally in control of. The reality underneath the simulation. The reality that no one but me knew existed below the simulation. The simulation that everyone throught reflected reality.
That’s the blue pill.”
After that, the brain gets the traitor who has stolen the ship to come on board and talk to him while he copies every file on the traitor’s handheld device:
“The entire copying process took just a little under two hours. I kept Ocampo talking the whole time. It required very little prompting.
Ever heard of ‘monologuing’? The thing where the captured hero escapes death by getting the villain to talk just long enough to break free?
Well, this wasn’t that, because I was still a brain in a box and likely to die the first time I was sent on a mission. But it was something close.”
The brain finds out that the group holding him calls itself Equilibrium, and is trying to keep the Conclave and the Colonial Union fighting each other. He plans cleverly, trapping Ocampo and his aide on the Chandler, blowing up the Equilibrium base, and bringing the ship and the traitor back to the Colonial Union so they can find out about Equilibrium’s nefarious plans.
The next story, This Hollow Union is told by an alien, Hafte Sorvalh, who is “the confidant and closest advisor to General Tarsem Gau, the leader of the Conclave, the largest known political union, with over four hundred constituent member species, none of whom number less than one billion souls.” We see the political machinizations of the Conclave, and witness General Gau’s transfer of power to Sorvalh, who is left with his death as a “tool to build the founding myth of the Conclave—to set it on a path toward wisdom rather than dissolution.”
The succeeding story, Can Long Endure, is told by Colonial Union soldiers fighting to suppress rebellions on their colonized planets. The first one is a neat job of emerging on the floor of the Franklin global government, where the representatives who mean to vote for independence from the Colonial Union are faced with the threat of having to give up their own “life, fortune, and honor” on the spot, rather than requiring their citizens to defend the independence. One of the soldiers, however, questions the usefulness of the mission:
“’The success of the mission depends on whether we achieve our mission goals. We did that—like Ilse said we killed the vote, embarrassed the politicians, didn’t get killed, and reminded the entire planet that the Colonial Union can come along and stomp them anytime it wants, so don’t screw with us. Which wasn’t explicitly in our mission parameters but was the subtext of the mission.’
“Wow, ‘subtext,’ Powell said. ‘For a former janitor you’re using big words there, Terrell.”
“This former janitor has a rhetoric degree, asshole,” Lambert said, and Powell smiled at this. “He just learned he could make more money as a janitor than as an adjunct professor. So yes. Successful. Great. But did it address the root causes? Did it address the underlying issues that required us to have to take the mission in the first place?”
No, and the subsequent action demonstrates this. (I also couldn’t resist quoting the bit about someone making more as a janitor than as an adjunct professor of rhetoric.)
The fourth and final story, To Stand or Fall, brings together the strands from the three previous stories and shows how Lieutenant Harry Wilson of the Colonial Defense Forces saves the earth, the day, the Colonial Union, and the Conclave. Along the way he drops in to have waffles with a beautiful woman, who asks why he couldn’t have sent a note to the U.S. secretary of state, and he dictates:
“Dear Danielle Lowen: How are you? I am fine. The group that destroyed Earth Station and made it look like the Colonial Union did it is now planning to nuke the surface of your planet until it glows, and frame the Conclave for it. Hope you are well. Looking forward to rescuing you in space again soon. Your friend, Harry Wilson.”
Harry’s plan involves getting Sorvalh and Vnac Oi of the Conclave together with Ambassador Abumwe of the Colonial Union and Ambassador Lowen of Earth. Together, the five of them announce a peace treaty and a final attack on Equilibrium, before its hostage brain-piloted ships can nuke the earth. Rafe extends amnesty to any brain-piloted ships that give up, and the members of the Conclave and the Colonial Union get busy administering the peace.
If you liked the previous Old Man’s War novels, you’re sure to like this one.