I was excited when I got the new John Scalzi book from NetGalley and Tor in exchange for an honest review - I’m a big fan of his work. But his last few novels have been weaker than some of his earlier work, and I think it was due to his habit of rushing through writing them to make his deadlines (as he has eloquently described on his blog). I also had some concerns about this new book, since on his blog he described it as also being written very quickly after a different novel idea fell apart.
The first two chapters are a REAL turnoff. Scalzi’s protagonist is a glib millennial in New York City in March 2020 at the very beginning of the pandemic, and as someone who lives in New York and works in Manhattan, I can tell you that Scalzi has failed utterly to capture the mood and attitude of the people living through that specific time and place. Instead his characters feel flat and unreal in a way that totally destroys any ability or desire to want to read any further.
It feels like a failure of worldbuilding, except the world he fails to build realistically is OUR real earth, before it even gets to the parallel earth filled with giant monsters. He envisions a global conspiracy that thousands of people know about but no one talks about that is supported by every government on the planet. Throw into it a secret effective one-dose covid vaccine early in the pandemic that gets kept solely for the benefit of this global conspiracy, and it’s not just a world that’s unbelievable, but one I wouldn’t want to exist.
Once the plot gets going, the writing doesn’t get better. The characters are all ciphers. At 1/3 of the way in, none of the characters have any individual personality. They all exhibit that trademark Scalzi-character wit, but in an undifferentiated way. This is especially frustrating in dialogue exchanges without tags, because it is very easy to lose track of who is talking. I know from his blog that Scalzi has done this to make it sound better in audiobook format, but it really shortchanges the clarity of the words on the page. By the end of the book, i still could not differentiate the characters, breaking them down only into Narrator, Villain, and Everyone Else (and they all sound just like Narrator).
The writing also feels noticeably weaker than in prior books. For example, here is a paragraph from chapter ten: “We all screamed and Satie did a thing and our helicopter did another thing and somehow we got past Edward, but not before I saw an image I would take to my grave.” This really feels like phoning it in to me. There are SO many instances in this book of the narrator telling the audience that they can’t describe something, or they can’t explain something, or it makes no sense, but it just happens. If the author cannot explain something, maybe that’s a sign that there is a problem?
I will keep rereading my older Scalzi novels and I will look forward to whatever new novels he comes up with and I will keep enjoying his blog like I have for years. But I can’t give this one a pass.
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