The Last Colony by John Scalzi

The Last Colony by John ScalziAs our boat drifted quietly out in the ocean, I looked up at the stars. The Milky Way was in full and brilliant display, all its stars and clusters and gas and dust clouds. A couple shooting stars fell down, including one bright green one. I wished I was out there somewhere, pretty much anywhere except for where I was: drifting in the ocean in the middle of the night, far from where we intended to go, and far enough from where we left, with no power to get anywhere. We were just drifting.

I’ve always enjoyed science fiction books – escapist literature at its finest. Sure, there’s tons of fiction about tons of subjects, and everyone has their preference about where they’d like to escape to and which sort of books open that up to them. But with science fiction, the billions and trillions of miles in all the galaxies around us are opened to all the possible worlds of possibilities! The only boundaries of science fiction is known science – and there is a LOT that known science still allows for – especially on unknown planets orbiting distant stars. I like to read science fiction because it makes me think about what could be.

I was reading The Last Colony by John Scalzi the evening before we set out to sea. The main characters, John Perry and his wife Jane Sagan along with their child Zoe, were leaving their comfortable lives where they had respectable positions and not too much worry, to become the leaders of a brand new colony on a brand new world. At first they were reluctant to take up so much leadership and responsibility, let alone leaving the place where they’d made their lives as a family. But the Colonial Union leadership convinced them that they were the only right people for the job, made all the preliminary preparations and quickly chose a new planet for them, picked out an assortment of colonists for them to lead and sent them all on their way. The excitement commenced!

The island of Nosy Mitsio - out in the middle of the Mozambique Channel.

The island of Nosy Mitsio – out in the middle of the Mozambique Channel.

Believe it or not, I can really identify with that plot set-up. Just last year, my wife and I were approached by a missionary organization other than our own and were asked to lead a team of new missionaries to an unreached people group on a hard-to-reach island. At that point, we’d only just begun settling into our new lives as missionaries in Madagascar, our new lives as a family with a young son, and we certainly didn’t think we were ready to lead others, especially not in a totally new place like they were hoping we’d agree to go to. But with a lot of prayer and discussions with the organization, we agreed to go and do our best to lead.

In John Scalzi’s The Last Colony, one thing Perry and Sagan quickly learned when they arrived on their new colony planet was that the Colonial Union hadn’t done a very good job of scouting it out ahead of them and wasn’t going to be giving them much help in getting started. Yes, they had supplies, instructions, and regulations that they were required to follow, but they were on their own in a place they knew very little about, and they had to figure it out quick. Unfortunately, my wife and I soon discovered the same thing about our new job assignment (minus the helpful supplies being given).

Before we were scheduled to move here, there had previously been two scouting trips made to our new location, and we accompanied the second one. It’s a small island called Nosy Mitsio, located about 35 km off the coast of northwest Madagascar. It’s a very undeveloped island, and among all the villages there’s not a single market for buying food (or much of anything else). If you don’t catch it or grow it, you don’t eat it. Inhabited exclusively by the Antakarana people, Nosy Mitsio is an important place figuring into their history, traditional religion, and tribal structure. The Antakarana people are a fairly large tribal group and their traditional beliefs mix Islam and ancestor worship. The few previous efforts at Christian outreaches to them on mainland Madagascar have been very unsuccessful. No efforts had been made to reach them on Nosy Mitsio, and it was hoped (and still is) that this location’s prominent place in their tribal identity might help make an extended and nuanced outreach effort successful – not only to the Antakarana here in Nosy Mitsio, but that it could also spread from them to the rest of the Antakarana people in northern Madagascar.

It’s a great idea and we still love the plan. Unfortunately, not long after getting here, we realized that two very short survey trips really isn’t enough to make a plan and a schedule for how to get this thing started. Especially considering the fact that those survey trips were essentially done as tourists, with basically no connection to the local lifestyle or regular means of transport. It turns out that getting this thing started is HARD, and it would’ve been nice to have some clue about that up front.

Upon arriving at their new world in The Last Colony, John Perry and his wife had to find a way to explain their colony’s extreme under-preparedness to the colonists who were supposed to start a new life there. They had to begin planting crops right away or they were going to run out of food. Thankfully, my wife and I only have to justify our under-preparedness to ourselves. Our team members won’t be arriving until we give the go ahead that we’ve paved the way and are ready for them to come. Though there is a deadline we’re working against and that certainly increases the stress. And the ever-present threat of running out of food before we can make it back to the mainland to buy more doesn’t seem to be any easier because of the fact that it’s only us (rather than all those we’re leading) who’d starve.

Because really, as hard as it is to move to a new place where you have no home, while trying to figure out how to get the materials sourced to build it, while trying to figure out the new dialect of the local people, while doing your best to figure out how to introduce yourself to them and work with them while not violating their taboos or offending their culture, while being regularly threatened with running out of food, none of that seems as hard as just trying to figure out how to get there and back. Without a doubt, transport has been our biggest issue so far. Just figuring out how to get here the first time (as non-tourists) was a big chore, but it’s even harder to leave the place. The ocean is incredibly unforgiving to the underprepared. We’ve spent countless voyages just drifting in the ocean, unable to reach our destination and having difficulty getting back to where we left. You’d think that going with the locals, who’ve been crossing the ocean for hundreds of years, would make things easier. But you’d be wrong, just like we have been on the countless trips we’ve made with them. Unfortunately, none of our alternative solutions have yet fared any better.

One of the many times we've been stranded at sea.  This guy is trying to signal for help to another boat off in the distance.  No help came.

One of the many times we’ve been stranded at sea. This guy is trying to signal for help to another boat off in the distance. No help came.

This is where we could really use a bit of organizational support. But as pioneers, as leaders of a pioneering effort, I guess we’re just on our own. We do get e-mail responses (when we’re in town on the mainland and have access to the internet), but e-mails aren’t all that comforting when what we really need is help with transport (and certainly wouldn’t mind having help with everything else too). I’m sure that John Perry in Scalzi’s The Last Colony felt about the same. The late-received detailed instructions about the fact that they’d been abandoned on a new world and had to remain hidden for fear of being attacked by a contingent of alien races probably didn’t smooth over the fact that they really just needed some help getting started and that help wasn’t going to be given.

Not the Milky Way, but still a beautiful view of the heavens, from the port we travel through to get to Nosy Mitsio.

Not the Milky Way, but still a beautiful view of the heavens, from the port we travel through to get to Nosy Mitsio.

So on our most recent trip to Nosy Mitsio, we left in the middle of the night when the sea is calmest, on a motor boat that had all the promise of fixing our persistent transport problems. Of course it didn’t, and so we were left again drifting in the ocean, with a dead motor and without enough wind to get back to the port, still quite a few hours from sunrise. So I looked up at the stars and thought of John Perry and his wife Jane Sagan and their daughter Zoe, and I thought of what it would be like to just leave the place I was in and be among the freedom of the stars. I looked up at the spiraling arm of the Milky Way and wondered around which of those stars, if any, would orbit the planet their colony was set on. I wondered what it would be like to be there, to have access to all their future technological wonders, to be able to push a button, punch a hole in space-time, and be somewhere else, somewhere new. It was a nice distraction while it lasted, and really, drifting in the ocean with no good way to get anywhere, there wasn’t anything better I should be thinking about.

The truth is (that I’m still learning), all pioneering efforts are difficult. In John Scalzi’s The Last Colony, their complications were much larger than my own. I don’t think I would’ve fared any better there in their shoes than I did here drifting listlessly in the sea. Other than just the troubles of getting their colony started, Perry and Sagan found themselves caught up in interstellar politics with the authoritarian Colonial Union speaking for all humanity on the one side and the sympathetic but powerfully resolute union of alien races known as the Conclave on the other. Perry and Sagan found out that their colony just happened to be the focal point for the conflict, and that their superiors intended all along to use them that way. Rather than being played as pawns, Perry and Sagan decided to take their colony’s destiny into their own hands and were much more resourceful in finding solutions to their struggles than we have been here in Nosy Mitsio so far.

But such is fiction, especially science fiction. Worlds of possibilities means the solution is (almost) always found by the end of the book. In real life, we don’t have as many options to work with nor do we know when the story is supposed to end. So we press on, doing our best, but without the surety of a successful completion that a satisfying work of fiction brings. So to me, a great science fiction story, like John Scalzi’s The Last Colony, provides entertainment, escape, hope, and encouragement. When things are rough in my own life, I have somewhere to turn to. And when I’m finished turning the pages, I’m encouraged with renewed vigor to try again where I’m at, to find the happy ending.

Anyone who loves science fiction or a great adventure story would love to read John Scalzi’s series, starting with Old Man’s War. The Last Colony is the third (but not last) book in the series. They’re all great reads and I’d recommend them to anyone who has a sense of wonder.

Pages: 320     FOA: 29,668

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