Oh, look. The Publishers Weekly review of The Ghost Brigades is in and it’s not bad at all. The opening line: “This fast-paced interstellar military drama doesn’t quite meet the high expectations set by its predecessor, Scalzi’s acclaimed Old Man’s War (2005), but it comes impressively close.” That works just dandy for me. You can see the entire PW review on TGB’s Amazon page.
One portion of the review that interested me was this: “Scalzi pays gleeful homage to Ender’s Game, The Forever War and Starship Troopers, sometimes at the expense of originality. All he needs to make the jump from good to great is to trust in his own ideas.” This is a fair cop — the book, as with Old Man’s War, is not only directly in line with the tradition that tracks through those books by Heinlein, Haldeman and Card, there’s actually a point in the book where the characters in the story read those books and note how they relate to their own lives to greater or lesser degrees. And of course, in addition to concretely serving the story it’s also me as an author making a nod to my honored predecessors.
As a writer, you can’t do that, or openly revisit the themes explored by those books and authors, without opening yourself to comment and comparison. Or at the very least, you can’t do it and act surprised when people note that you’re playing the changes. The ideas in The Ghost Brigades are to a significant degree an expansion of previous explorations on sf military themes. As I noted on Old Man’s War in my “Lessons From Heinlein” essay: “The flip side of so consciously appropriating such a well-known sf format… is that Old Man’s War cannot be accused of being breathlessly original, either in concept or execution. I think that’s a fair enough assessment. To speak of novel in musical terms, it’s best described as a variation on a theme or an improvisational riff off a classic tune.” As a writer I have no problem trusting my ideas; one of the ideas with these books is that because they’re an extension of a particular tradition of SF novel, so some derivativeness is going to be baked right in. I expect The Last Colony will be open to more of the same observations, as tonally and thematically it’s going to be in line with the other books in the series. I do think there are a number of original ideas in all the books, of course. You get a little from column A and a little from column B.
Having said that, I entirely understand the reviewer’s point of “Yes, we know you can do Heinlein — but can you do you?” One of the ironies here is that the book I wrote immediately after Old Man’s War — The Android’s Dream — is rather different tonally than Old Man’s War or Ghost Brigades; and at the very least it can’t be said to be Heinleinesque because Dear Ol’ Bob never opened a book with a chapter-long fart joke. Indeed I don’t believe any science fiction author of note has done so. Thus will be my claim to fame in the years to come — when any future science fiction writer does something of a gastrointestinal quality, reviewers will say “it’s rather Scalzi-esque, though, isn’t it?” I don’t know that I could ask for anything more. I don’t know if Android’s Dream will be the book to propel me from good-to-great territory — one does not generally achieve greatness via flatulence, Le Petomane notwithstanding — but I guess you never know.
In any event — and aside from fart jokes — I’ll be interested to see what critics think of Android’s Dream when it comes out (not to mention the Two-Book Project I’m Currently Secretive About, which won’t be out until late 2007 in any event). I think both those will establish I have my own voice, for better or for worse. In the meantime, of course, there are worse things than being in the company of Heinlein, Haldeman and Card.