John Scalzi, The Sagan Diary (Subterranean Press, 2007)
Making one's approach to John Scalzi's Old Man's War universe through The Sagan Diary is a lot like approaching Jane Eyre for the first time by reading Wide Sargasso Sea, or maybe The Eyre Affair. It's a contrapuntal work, one that relies on and enriches previous knowledge of the underlying source material instead of staking out new territory for itself. And, when compared to the books from which it is derived, it comes across as something of an odd duck.
The other books in the series – Old Man's War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Last Colony – can be read in large part as loving cover versions of Heinlein's Starship Troopers: Humans who don't know much about how the universe really works get amped up by technology and sent out into big, bad interstellar space to protect a sheltered civilian population from the hostile aliens who will in fact eat your brains (and, for that matter, the rest of you as well). That's not to say that they're not a cracking good read, and Scalzi does an excellent job of updating Heinlein's central conceit. But they are, first and foremost, action-oriented, military science fiction with a whole lot of shooting, saluting, and exploding going on.
That's a large part of makes The Sagan Diary that much more interesting to read, as the action is almost entirely internal. Jane Sagan, for those unfamiliar with the series, is a futuristic Special Ops soldier, a superhuman killing machine grown from the DNA of a dead woman and taught the arts of war for the betterment of humanity. A freak coincidence brings her into contact with the husband of the woman whose DNA she was cloned from, and from there an unlikely but tactically significant romance blossomed. The Sagan Diary, then, takes place after the events of The Ghost Brigades, when both Sagan and her paramour, John Perry, are being mustered out of service and into more "normal" human bodies. The bulk of the book consists of Sagan's ruminations on her personal history, memory mixed with a heady dose of philosophy. There are no enemies to kill here, no plans to carry out or troops to command. There's just Sagan alone with her thoughts and her memories, and the vast unknowable of so-called normal existence stretching ahead of her.
The conclusions she comes to are ultimately satisfying ones, though fans of the lean, muscular prose in the other books of the series are going to be surprised by how prolix Scalzi gets here. The prose is positively lush in places, not what one would expect from a woman hurriedly raised from artificial birth to be an efficient, elite killing machine. Then again, maybe that's Scalzi's point; that there's poetry in all of us, no matter our origins or pre-suggested roles. If that is his central thesis, he could have done a lot worse than to have Jane Sagan elucidate it on his behalf.
[Richard E. Dansky]
You can order The Sagan Diary here.