Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi
Reviewed by Richard Larson
25 March 2009
A title like Zoe's Tale could easily suggest a novel somewhat limited in scope, or even potentially claustrophobic in terms of point of view, but the character of Zoe Boutin Perry is obviously one who John Scalzi has spent a lot of time with, and her voice, clear and consistent throughout the novel, is often compelling and only occasionally distracting. Her struggles are simultaneously personal and epic, and reading from her perspective is rewarding mostly because it feels authentic—even as the narrative sometimes devolves into self-indulgent asides to the reader ("Yes, as it happens, I am a sarcastic little thing. Thanks for asking" [p. 25]) that add nothing to the story and feel instead like artificial attempts to add spunk to a character we already recognize, through her actions, as spunky. But even so, what emerges most successfully from this novel is the experience of a teenager coming into her own as she faces extraordinary circumstances and is called upon, basically, to save the world, which is probably both a common fantasy and a common worst nightmare of teenagers everywhere.
At the very end of the novel, Zoe attempts to explain the reason we're holding the book in our hands as she embarks, rather wistfully, on yet another journey: "I looked out the shuttle window at . . . my world, my home . . . and the people in it, some of whom I loved and some of whom I lost. Trying to take it all in, to make it a part of me. To make it a part of my story. My tale" (p. 330). The tone is characteristic of "journal" novels: confessional, nostalgic, and summarily evaluative of the effect of the documented experiences on the character as a whole. Zoe notes early in the novel that she is about to encounter a "new world, new beginnings, a new year, a new life" (p. 7), and so by the end we have come from her wide-eyed and naïve look into the future all the way to the point at which she has developed perspective. This acquisition of perspective is what the adolescent experience is all about, of course, and Scalzi guides Zoe to this point in a believable, entertaining way, telling a story about leaving things behind, starting anew, and taking on responsibility for people other than ourselves. Zoe's Tale is strongest when Scalzi explores adolescent angst:
But then you become a teenager and you start thinking about everything you might possibly want to do with your life, and you look at the options available to you. And then all the farms, goats, and chickens—and all the same people you've known all your life and will know all your life—begin to look a little less than optimal for a total life experience. It's all the same, of course. That's the point. It's you who's changed. (p. 28)
The larger events of the novel—intense diplomatic standoffs with the possible threat of interstellar war, the intricate details of which are explored in John Scalzi's Old Man's War novels (in which Zoe is a minor character)—are cleverly interwoven with the comparatively banal signposts of Zoe's ascension into adulthood; new friends, first love, grappling with big decisions, grudgingly leaving the nest, and so on. "Maybe everyone goes through this," Zoe writes as she describes her "stretches of alienation," the feeling of being "unplugged" (p. 67). The external drama, with much more at stake than what Zoe typically encounters during her more personal story, is gradually revealed to us throughout the entirety of Zoe's Tale just as the journey into adulthood becomes clearer and more tangible to Zoe.
Much attention is paid here to the idea of identity. Because Zoe's biological father, Charles Boutin, bestowed upon the Obin (an alien race) the gift of consciousness (long story) before his death, Zoe is something of a goddess to the Obin, bound to them by contract and presented with two Obin bodyguards who record her every move for mass consumption within Obin popular culture, a phenomenon similar, perhaps, to our own society of celebrity here in the 21st century. The most important thing to take away from this, and something that she struggles with throughout the novel, is that Zoe is primarily a symbol to the Obin, rather than an individual. She considers herself "a goddess for an entire race of people" (p. 66), but this isn't a burden that she bears willingly; to the contrary, it is something that she often laments: "All of my life, bounded by the Obin. Bounded not in who I was, but what I was. By what I meant to them. There was nothing about my own life that mattered in this, except what entertainment I could give them as billions of Obin played the records of my life like it was a funny show" (p. 214). Much of the novel bears out Zoe's struggle to affirm an individual identity in the face of such immense symbolic responsibility. "I am a daughter and goddess and girl who sometimes just doesn't know who she is or what she wants" (p. 67), she tells us, and while this is another point in which the novel hews dangerously close to the line between relatable teenage angst and obnoxious, cringe-inducing melodrama, the sentiment is immediately recognizable to audiences of any age.
This notion of what she is and who she is comes up often throughout the novel, climaxing during a conversation between Zoe and Jane (Zoe's adoptive mother) when Jane is sending Zoe off on an important diplomatic mission and imploring her to "remember who you are. And everything about who you are. And everything about what you are" (p. 271). Jane concludes with a proud statement about Zoe's readiness as an adult: "You are finally taking control of your life. What you are is starting to make room for who you are" (p. 271). The novel as a whole, then, becomes a conversation between these two parts of Zoe's identity and her attempts to find herself within the two potential frameworks.
Needless to say, she ends up experiencing a marked degree of success, but not before she makes peace with angry werewolves, discovers that she and her fellow colonists have been lied to and used as bait by their own government, faces immense and heartbreaking personal losses, ventures from her colony to another planet on a secret mission, finally confronts the Obin who worship her, negotiates with powerful leaders, assists in the uncovering of an assassination plot, and bears witness to an epic battle, making all sorts of personal breakthroughs along the way. And all of this is really fun to read about, because John Scalzi is at heart an entertainer, and he is at his best when he maps out big plots and sends his characters careening through them.
"It has to be you . . . no one else can do it" (p. 267), Zoe's adoptive father, John Perry, tells her as she prepares to do her part to save the world (or at least her family and friends). This fatalism, the idea that Zoe is the proverbial tie that binds, is what ultimately lends the novel its charm and romance. Characters born into extraordinary responsibility are a popular aspect of fantastic fiction, and Zoe experiences the familiar trajectory—rebellion followed by a stubborn rejection and then eventual grudging acceptance of these new responsibilities—that we see characters of this type traditionally go through. The fact that the novel ends with just one chapter of Zoe's ultimate journey complete as she is whisked off on yet another adventure is fitting not only because we all obviously have a lot more life to live after we become adults, but also because this is the nature of the character John Scalzi has presented to us: someone always ready for new challenges, someone who will surely go on to be an even more major player in the world that has been created for her. By the end of the novel Zoe has reconciled her identity crisis and come into her own as an adult—"From now on it's just who I am. And who I am is Zoe. Just Zoe." (p. 321)—and from there, at least we hope, things can only get better.