Review of Old Man's War by John Scalzi
Old Man's War
by John Scalzi
We’re at an interesting point in our history when it comes to spaceflight. We bravely ventured as far as the Moon, but now we cling to the skin of our world, skimming our atmosphere in shuttles and space stations. We are at an impasse, waiting for that next step, that next flurry of activity that will open a new chapter in human spaceflight. It’s looking like commercial spaceflight is the new frontier. Even so, it remains for debate whether humanity will ever spread among the stars. Our bodies are frail enough on a planet with standard gravity—we aren’t really made to live in space for the time required to get anywhere. If we ever do colonize other star systems, I suspect it will be on their terms, not ours.
If we do spread out, we shouldn’t assume Earth will be in the centre of the universe any more. Indeed, if our colonies encounter intelligent alien species and begin interacting with them, they will be on the forefront of human development, and Earth will be the respected old backwater. This is the case in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. It’s one of the ideas that stuck with me from the book: most SF either treats Earth like the capital of humanity’s empire/federation/club or regards Earth as some kind of myth lost to the past. This middle road is a refreshing take.
Earth is quarantined; no one who leaves can come back. The Colonial Union, light-years ahead in terms of technology thanks to its alien contacts, tightly restricts emigration, with priority given to citizens of countries that are overpopulated. For the Americans, the only way to become a colonial is to join up in the Colonial Defense Force—and they only accept people on their 75th birthday. The CDF wants soldiers with life experience. Because the universe Scalzi envisions is teeming with intelligent life—most of it at odds with us for all the good planets.
I come to this book having read a smattering of Scalzi’s short fiction and his novella The God Engines, which I didn’t like that much. Indeed, his short stories have often tickled me but never really impressed me beyond remarking on his cleverness. But I love following him on Twitter and reading his blog. And if there’s anything his writing, both on his blog and in his stories, demonstrates, it’s a sharp sense of humour.
That humour pervades Old Man’s War, particularly in the voice of the narrator, John Perry, and it’s the metric by which you will love or lament this work. I’m firmly in the former camp: I devoured this (admittedly slim) work in a day, happy to keep reading chapter after chapter of Perry coming to grips with his new life.
What I love about Scalzi’s writing is the way he can use and allude to pop culture without actually mentioning any specific works:
This got an involuntary chuckle from several recruits. Master Sergeant Antonio Ruiz could have come from central casting. He was exactly what you expected from a drill instructor—large, angry and colorfully abusive right from the get-go. No doubt in the next few seconds, he would get into one of the amused recruit’s faces, hurl obscenities and demand one hundred push-ups. This is what you get from watching seventy-five years’ worth of war dramas.
No specific movies mentioned, so it doesn’t really age the book, but we as readers know what Perry means. (Maybe we won’t in fifty years and this book will seem incredibly camp—still, I like the timeless feeling this invokes.) And if the above paragraph was Scalzi hanging a lampshade, then in the paragraph that follows he decorates and gilds it:
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re thinking, you dumb shits. I know you’Re enjoying my performance at the moment. How delightful! I’m just like all those drill instructors you’ve seen in the movies! Aren’t I just the fucking quaint one!”
The amused chuckles had come to a stop. That last bit was not in the script.
This self-awareness resurfaces periodically throughout the book. It would be easy for Scalzi to overextend himself and become overbearing. Your mileage might vary, but I like it because it helps us identify with Perry, which would otherwise be difficult for two reasons. Firstly, most of us haven’t lived for 75 years, lost our wives, and decided to sign up for an extraterrestrial army. Secondly, John Perry is a bit of a Mary Sue (TVTropes).
Scalzi has an interesting time trying to write in the voice of a 75-year-old man. Most of the time it comes off exactly as that—a much younger man writing like a 75-year-old. For an ersatz voice, however, it’s pretty good, and Scalzi adequately ascribes motivations, memories, and regrets to Perry. We know why he enlists in CDF and what keeps him going. But I wish he weren’t so competent at everything. That drill instructor? Turns out he’s a huge fan of Perry’s work in advertising. It’s a hilarious moment but is the first in a remarkable set of triumphs for Perry. This dude just can’t avoid becoming a hero. And it sucks, because I wish I could laud Old Man’s War as some kind of captivating novel with a strong protagonist. The truth is, John Perry is the worst part of this book.
The best parts of this book? Everything else.
I’ve already mentioned the setting, with its marginalization of Earth’s place in the larger scheme of humanity. I love the little bit of moral uncertainty Scalzi holds up when it comes to the deployment of the CDF. The Colonial Union has an aggressive, expansionist policy when it comes to planets, and they don’t balk at kicking aliens off a planet they want or even bombing an alien homeworld back to the Industrial Revolution to get them out of the colony race for a while. In many senses, humans are the bad guys here. But this book isn’t really about that so much as it is the narrative of one man caught up in this system. I mean, Perry is already pretty intolerably successful—if he singlehandedly managed to change the course of Colonial Union policy, I don’t think it would have made the novel any better.
Scalzi also throws about technological motifs like they’re going out of style (and some of them are). We’ve got “skip drives” that invoke multiverse theory and tachyons (yay, tachyons!); mind uploading and body transferring; cloning and intense genetic manipulation verging on trans/posthumanism; and weak AI. His is a gestalt vision of the future, a little bit from every walk of the genre. In other hands it might be an unpalatable mess, but Scalzi manages to make it come together into a more unified sense of our technological development.
We see this in the Ghost Brigades, perhaps the most important novum in Old Man’s War. I don’t want to go into detail owing to spoilers, and since it appears that the next book in the series is all about them. But the Ghost Brigades are a source of interesting psychological questions for the reader to contemplate—not to mention much-needed character development for Perry. With them, Scalzi taps into a fact true for most of our history but not always obvious to the majority of us: the military often drives our technological innovations, and the amount of ethical dialogue they have with the rest of society is always in flux.
I don’t visualize things while reading, but I do understand what people mean by the term “cinematic”, and Old Man’s War definitely fits that label. Indeed, it’s being made into a movie by Wolfgang Petersen. This is definitely a book that will work well as a movie (there’s a reason I finished it in a day). Scalzi knows how to structure not only scenes but chunks and chapters as well. The result is an entertaining story full to bursting with cool science-fictional premises. Old Man’s War isn’t perfect, but as Scalzi’s first novel and my first novel of his I’ve read, it is definitely a pleasant experience.