When John Scalzi started his little serialized publishing experiment a few years ago with The Human Division, it felt a little like a television series. Each story was self contained and episodic in nature, and Scalzi even went as far as to call each installment an "Episode". The book (unexpectedly and distressingly) even ended on a cliffhanger, and when he announced the sequel, he did so by saying that it had been "renewed for a second season". Well, the new season has finally arrived, in the form of The End of All Things.
To continue the television analogy, though, this is less like a season two and more like a mini-series. The first book/season consisted of thirteen stories/episodes, and they were very episodic in nature. There was a burbling background conflict that wound its way through, like one of those procedural TV shows that has a monster of the week, but an overarching conspiracy that gets mentioned every now and again. This new book/season only consists of 4 novellas (each of which is significantly longer than most of what preceded it), and instead of focusing on self-contained, episodic conflicts, this one focuses pretty intently on bringing that background conspiracy to the forefront in a more longform narrative way. As a result, this feels like a bit of a turn in the series, and lends itself to the mini-series analogy. This is all well and good, and the narrative here is more cohesive than the previous entry, but then, one of the things I loved about the first book was the way some of those standalone stories worked. So yes, this is more cohesive, but not quite as much as a normal novel, which makes it a bit of an oddity. Let's take a look at each episode.
The Life of the Mind is the first story, told by Rafe Daquin, who is basically a brain in a box. He wasn't always that way, but here he tells us the story of how he became that way and what he did about it. It actually explains a lot about the mysterious disappearing ships from the previous book, but it is also the most clumsy story in the series in terms of exposition. Maybe Scalzi was concerned that the head-in-a-box thing would be confusing, but even inexperienced SF readers don't need you to repeat something three times or extrapolate every piece of information. I was a little concerned at the outset of this story because Scalzi's last novel, Lock In, also started with an unnecessary and egregious example of info-dumping. Fortunately, while this grated on me a bit, it wasn't nearly as bad as last time, and I was able to quickly move past it. I liked the character of Rafe and I liked where this novella went.
This Hollow Union is up next, and it follows alien diplomat Hafte Sorvalh as she attempts to keep her Conclave of alien races together while dealing with those pesky human factions. You may remember Sorvalh as the Churro loving diplomat from the previous book, and it was nice to revisit her. While told from a different perspective, this basically continues the narrative set up in The Life of the Mind, in particular the fallout of various information leaks and revelations about third party factions out for their own purposes. It's a little talky, but it reminded me a bit of the previous book's focus on the diplomatic corps and while Lieutenant Harry Wilson shows up at one point, the zaniness factor isn't quite what it was. Since we're finally getting down into the details of the shadowy conspiracy hinted at in the first book, the tone is necessarily more serious here, and Scalzi did manage a few little surprises. All in all, a solid story.
Can Long Endure is told from the perspective of a 4 person CDF squad as they're sent out on riot patrol, keeping the Colonial Union in line (instead of their normal conflicts with alien species). There's some of Scalzi's snappy dialog here, and that part goes pretty well. The story itself is a little repetitive and the ending is a little anti-climactic, but that's kind of expected for the penultimate episode of a series, right? It was my least favorite episode, but even then, it was a good story, well told.
To Stand or Fall brings things to a close on a strong note. Due to its episodic nature, it's hard to call any one character the protagonist of the series, but the one man present throughout almost all the stories would be Lieutenant Harry Wilson. He's a fun character, and breathed fresh life into all the preceding stories whenever he showed up (even if only for a short time). Here, he's the viewpoint character, and while the overarching narrative has become more serious, Wilson's stories always feel breezy and fun. It helps the Scalzi is able to devise a plausible solution to the challenge facing our various factions and heroes (you can nitpick if you like, but I was more than willing to go with it).
As a whole, it all works out, even if it comes off a bit disjointed. That's just a natural result of the whole serialized publishing thing though, and I think the overarching narrative was pretty solid. Personally, though? I think I appreciated some of those lowish-stakes diplomatic missions from the first book a lot more. This sequel reminds me of a TV series that started out episodically, then got bogged down in the mythology and ended up devoting all its attention to the continuity story rather than coming up with a series of small, fun adventures for our heroes. I can't really fault the book for being something different than what I desired though, and it still fares really well in my book. I am on the fence with this one with respect to the Hugos though. None of the stories are really suitable for inclusion in the novella category (The Life of the Mind might be, but the glaring exposition issues make it a tough sell), but the disjointed nature of the narrative also makes best novel a tough sell. On the other hand, I liked this more than most of the stuff on the past two years' worth of novel ballots, so there is that! Of course, we've got plenty of time here, so there's no need to make snap decisions. Let's see how this one ferments in my head over the next few months. All of which is to say, this is a solid successor to The Human Division, and it resolves all the cliffhangery elements of that first book well. The resolution here does not seem to lead to a natural third "season", but who knows? I would certainly like to spend more time with some of these characters...