Sunday, August 10, 2008

Old Man's War, a review

So, after finally getting around to reading John Scalzi's big breakthrough novel, I wanted to take some time and parse my reactions. Here's my review.

Three word Review: Mostly Kicks Ass.

More Than Three Word Review:
John Scalzi's 2005 novel, Old Man's War, shouldn't be anything new to you. After all, Mr. Scalzi has become a big name in SF fandom with his (highly recommended) blog Whatever, his reviews available at, and tons more. He just won the Hugo Fan Writer award (Congrats to that) and he was nominated for the Best Novel award in 2006--for this novel. (He didn't win, but he did get the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer that year.)

So neither Mr. Scalzi nor his series-introducing novel are unheard of. Which leads to the question, why did it take me so damn long to read the damn book, dammit?

Timezones. Or the international dateline. Coriolis effect?

Dunno, but anyway, I did finally get around to it. And I really wish I had done it sooner.
Old Man's War introduces readers to a world Scalzi goes on to explore in further novels The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, and Zoe's Tale. The central conceit of these novels is that the Earth has begun to colonize the stars, and the forces charged with defending humanity's place in the universe against all the big, nasty monsters that want to eat us is essentially made up of old farts.

I say conceit because, actually, the idea seems at once compelling and yet utterly pointless; I'll get to that in a minute.

Old Man's War
introduces us to John Perry, a widower from Ohio who signs up for the Colonial Defense Forces, and goes off to join the fight on his 75th birthday. In space, he meets a lot of new people, goes through a pretty cool rejuvenation/enhancement process, and kills lots and lots of aliens.

Along the way, of course he meets a girl (rather, girls) and of course he saves the day--this is a pretty heroic story, after all. But most of all, John Perry acts as our guide to the new realms of ideas Scalzi has opened up. We join him as he learns for the first time how humanity has beaten the galactic speed limit of C (i.e. it hasn't); why cute little deerlike aliens are never to be trusted (they like meat...); and how to kill inch-tall, spacefaring people (go Godzilla on their asses). Perry is our wide-eyed proxy, and he takes us on a hell of a journey. it's well worth the trip.

The book, and Scalzi's work in general, has gotten lots of comparisons to Heinlein, especially Starship Troopers. I think that's at least partially intentional, and completely fine. Nothing wrong with writing like a grandmaster of the genre, not even in reference to one of his less respected works (plenty of people think the work in question is pretty much a defense of fascism...but not all of them.)

There are similarities in the books--for example, the exploration of the effects of constant fighting on a person's psyche; the trauma of lost friends, and life after; the inevitability and necessity of war, and thus the nobility of those who sacrifice themselves in its service. But I find Old Man's War a much more fulfilling, and a much more readable, novel. The characters are more authentic, and the situations much more experiential, than Starship Troopers, mostly because any political content is in the background; this is very much an adventure novel, a semi-hard SF book, and it mostly rocks.

Of course, the book isn't perfect. It focuses a lot on the "Gee-whiz, them aliens is nasty" at the expense of arc, and the character development is incremental, at best. The thing that bothers me the most about it, and it really hardly bothers me at all, is that the whole concept of an army of 75-year-olds really isn't that important. At no point in the story did I think, wow, these guys are really different from all the other military recruit-characters in military SF stories. The kind of maturity, world-wisdom, etc. one would expect from 75 years of life doesn't really pop up at all...which, I guess, might have been intentional. The only time that this kind of history plays an essential role in the story is when Perry is describing his dead wife to another character--and, while this is essential to the continuing story (I guess...), it doesn't really need a 75 year-old; 30 year-olds can be widowed, too.

It just bothers me that the whole concept really isn't that essential to the plot, it's just a neat idea.

But really, there's nothing wrong with that. It, like other elements of the story, serves as an introductory point to this brave new world of Scalzi's, and the world is interesting enough, and exciting enough, to warrant the introduction. The continuation of the series, and its continued popularity and critical praise, is a sure sign that the depth that might be missing in this book is sure to develop; even if it doesn't, Scalzi's writing and worldbuilding are just too fun to miss.

In the end, I have to give this book a solid recommendation (not that it needs one from me) for one simple, but telling reason. Within minutes of finishing it, I desperately wanted to read the next book--I had to know what happened to John, and Jane, and the island of humanity in its sea of enemies. That hasn't happened to me since the first time I read Ender's Game, or The Eye of the World.

That's some pretty good company to be in.

All the opinions here are mine, and not yours. If yours are different, that's fantastic! Celebrate diversity! And take it somewhere else!

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