John Scalzi,
The Sagan Diary
(Subterranean Press, 2007)

This novelette is set in the fictive universe of John Scalzi's Old Man's War, Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony, and the story will mean less to anyone who has not read at least the first two books, as it is based on the main character in Ghost Brigades and revolves around her relationship with the main character in Old Man's War. It also gives away some story details of the third book.

Jane Sagan was born with full self-awareness and immediately began training as a Special Forces soldiers. This takes place in Humanity's future, after the human race has begun colonizing other planets ... and has run into other sentient species who want those same planets.

In this future, humans on Earth can sign up for the Colonial Defense Force at 65, at which time a DNA sample is taken and a clone is started. At 75, their personalities are transferred into young, healthy, genetically-enhanced bodies (i.e., the clones) with implants that help them become the best soldiers scientists can make. If they survive their tour of duty, they can retire. What if they die between 65 and 75? The clone is still matured and trained into a soldier, but in Special Forces, with no memories or personalities to start off with.

This novelette is not so much a story as it is a diary (hence its title), a transcript of the download of Jane Sagan's BrainPal or implanted computer link and cognitive enhancement, which she has to surrender when she retires from Special Forces.

The chapters cover the topics of language use (the clones get computer implants soon after birth, can communicate via computer links and learn speech on an as-needed or optional basis); killing and death; friendship and aging; sex and love; fear; and facing the transformation from a Special Forces soldier to a more normal human in retirement.

This diary or journal represents a series of essays on different topics, and the writing, for almost the entire book, is excellent. The reader get the narrator's personal view of the issues important to her, told in a very compelling manner that is almost poetic at times. The book is an expedition into a different format of writing for the author, whose novels are excellent, relatively hard science fiction with a military focus for the novels to which this diary relates. The Sagan character lets us peer into her soul and her values, and the result is thought-provoking and insightful.

The book is short, but was meant to be, and makes no pretense at being anything beyond what it is. I cannot cite its brevity as a flaw, then, although I would have enjoyed reading about more topics, like culture, civilization and politics.

In the chapter on sex, there is some crude language that seems out of place compared to the flowing, near-poetic prose of the other chapters. I understand that "Jane" was trying to draw the distinction between sex and love, but certain words seemed over-used to me.

The reader will be disappointed if expectating this to be a story, as it is not. It is a series of introspective musings on different topics, and it is not meant to progress linearly. I would not call this a flaw either, but it might be an unpleasant surprise for anyone who looks for a beginning, middle and end.

review by
Chris McCallister

28 July 2007

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