Wednesday, September 9, 2009

John Scalzi - Zoe's Tale

John Scalzi, Zoe's Tale, Tor, 2008.

Spoiler warning!

Mea culpa! I did something I don't normally do and read a book from a series without having read the previous books. Zoe's tale is supposed to be a stand-alone novel, but since it is in the same universe as Scalzi's previous books, and tells the story of the same events as The Last Colony from a different character's point of view, this wasn't the best choice to introduce myself to a new author. I will try to treat this book as a stand-alone novel, and if some of my remarks show that I would have understood it differently had I read it after the previous books, feel free to let me know in the comments section.

This is the story of Zoe Boutin-Perry, an adolescent girl with a complicated background, who moves to a new colony. As such, it was a story that resonated with me, both as a person with experience of immigration to a new country, and because I started reading it on the plane at the beginning of my first overseas holiday in years.

The story is set during a time of expansion and colonization, when the human race and hundreds of alien races are competing and fighting for new planets to colonize. Zoe is the adopted daughter of the couple chosen to lead the new colony of Roanoak, the first planet to be settled by humans from other colonies rather than humans from earth itself. It seems that the first wave of colonies chose people from one cultural or ethnic background for each, while in this case settlers were chosen from ten different colony planets, and one of the aims was to create a new, shared culture as part of the settlement process.

The moment the ship arrives at the planet, the new settlers discover that they are under threat of alien invasion, and so must cut all contacts with the rest of human society and not use any electronics which might be detected and bring the aliens to attack the planet. They spend the first year settling the planet using traditional, pre-electronic methods. Then things get complicated as the colony is used as a pawn in a larger inter-species political war.

We follow the first-person narrator character, Zoe, in her adjustment to her new life and her adventures with her close friends and parents. She is sensitive, witty and stubborn, and has wisdom beyond her years due to her special circumstances. I enjoyed hearing the story through her voice and found her easy to identify with.

Zoe's background story is what drives the narrative. As a young child, she lived with her father, a scientist who worked on consciousness. He created consciousness machines for the Obin, a species of aliens who had previously been given intelligence but not consciousness through genetic engineering. Zoe has since been revered by the Obin, and after her father's death two Obin accompanied Zoe everywhere, serving as her bodyguards and learning about human consciousness by recording her experiences and then sharing them with the entire Obin species.

To me, this aspect of the story was the most disappointing. I couldn't understand what was meant by intelligence without consciousness. It seems to me that any intelligent being is conscious to some degree, whether as an individual or as a hive mind. Consciousness is an emergent property of intelligence, and is on a scale rather than a binary characteristic that either exists or doesn't. It was implied that without the consciousness machines the Obin felt no emotions, but that didn't seem right to me either, since some emotions are primal and exist in animals we would not consider particularly intelligent or conscious. Later on there is an explanation of why the Obin were given intelligence without consciousness. This explanation was also unconvincing to me, though it may have been intended to reflect a very alien perspective on life. In any case, Zoe's life story is an example of a very conscious human existence.

Zoe grows and takes her place in the story, sometimes rather reluctantly. She has to use her power without abusing it and make choices that would be difficult for anyone, let alone someone young, inexperienced and conflicted about her identity. She emerges as courageous and moral in her dealings with the forces that would shape the colony's future. I hope she will serve as a role model to readers young and old.

I enjoyed this book, particularly the first-person narrative and the story of Zoe's personal life and development. In this case, it seems that a male author managed to portray a female character in a realistic and believable way. The larger picture of inter-species politics and wars was insufficiently explained for my taste, but may have been better portrayed in the other books. I also found it very frustrating that Scalzi doesn't seem to be a very visual writer, and mentioned many alien species without giving me enough visual clues to imagine them (with the result that I saw them as human in my mind's eye, which felt wrong). I look forward to reading the rest of Scalzi's work, and will report on it here in due course.

Note: The name Zoe should have an umlaut on the e, but I didn't know how to do that in the web browser. Sorry!

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