Old Man’s war
John Scalzi’s 2005 debut novel Old Man’s War is a book I’ve been putting off reading for some time now. There is no particular reason for this I just kept getting distracted by shiny new books. This as it turns out was a major fail on my part. Old Man’s War is an exciting military science fiction novel full of human drama and high action that is on the one hand entirely original and on the other hand very much in the tradition of the great military sci-fi novels of the past.
Before I start talking in depth I should say that if you’re a fan of quality science fiction or military sci-fi then you should definitely stop reading right now and go read this novel if you haven’t already. There is no way to write a decent review of the novel without at least mentioning some minor spoilers (even the PW review mentions some)! Honestly going into the novel more or less “cold” with little foreknowledge of what to expect (beyond what the blurb on the back tells you) is the way to go and I think will aid the novel’s impact. So, that being said, stop now and go read the book! Seriously.
The Earth of Old Man’s War is a world under quarantine by the space faring Colonial forces of humanity. The inhabitants of underdeveloped nations are given the opportunity to become colonists and journey to the stars while the established “advanced” nations, i.e. America, are not allowed to be colonists. Instead, Americans are offered the opportunity at the ripe age of 75 to enlist in the Colonial defense forces. They are lead by the carrot of mysterious rejuvenation techniques that the Colonial government refuses to reveal to the governments of Earth.
As John Perry finds out after joining up the world beyond the insulated sphere of Earth is decidedly posthuman (or maybe transhuman, I think you could argue both particularly once the Special Forces are introduced). His old body is tossed aside as he is implanted into a fresh body; a body unable to reproduce, genetically engineered to be a fighting machine, and with high powered supercomputer implanted in its brain (the BrainPal). For all the serious implications of this transformation there is a wonderful dose of somewhat absurd slightly tongue-in-cheek humor with the introduction of these new bodies which come equipped with a glossy pamphlet (in digital form) extolling its virtues. While only the text is reproduced in the novel it encapsulates the marvelous absurdity of capitalism’s growth, or at least flourishing, beyond the stars and I couldn’t help but imagine some sort of PipBoy like mascot to go along with the pamphlet. This theme is somewhat carried by the later revelation of the highlight from Perry’s former career: creating a famous cartoon mascot for an advertising campaign.
The training scenes are reminiscent of Starship Troops and not at all dissimilar from say Full Metal Jacket save that the troops perform staggering feats of superhuman strength and agility. Of course their Sergeant makes Zim and Hartman look a little soft; which is saying something. Perry’s integration into his new body, followed by the training sequences give both him and the reader an excellent means to get acquainted with what the melding of technology and bioengineering can do. As is explained to the recruits the universe is a scary place for humanity and there is a constant scrabble amongst the various intelligent species that results in frequent and bloody battle. The training process, in addition to teaching the recruits how to kill, is interesting in that it also teaching them how to think, how to circumvent a literal lifetimes’ worth of preconceptions.
Things really kick up a notch once the fighting starts. The aliens of Old Man’s War are vicious; as likely to view humanity as a competitor for resources as they to see humanity itself as a resource (hint: food). Of course, we’re as vicious as the rest and Perry’s confrontation with seeming inhumanity that the defense of humanity seems to engender is a pretty tense moment of the novel and turning point for the novel’s focus. The question Perry asks of himself namely “Am I a monster?” is what defines the primary focus for the remainder of the novel. In other words, what it means to be human.
Old Man’s War constantly forces its characters, and its readers, to redefine what we think we know about the universe. While this mainly applies to our grounded view of the universe, the one the geriatric recruits start with, it also applies to the new wider world that Scalzi introduces as elements he introduces in one chapter are often turned on their head later in the novel. From skip drives to the Ghost Brigades hinted at early in the novel Scalzi is masterful at throwing us new idea after new idea.
I’ve really only talked about the novel in broad swathes. In truth I think this is something of a disservice since Scalzi does a near pitch perfect job of providing his thematic musings through a very believable and wonderfully human cast of characters. John Perry and his clique of friends remain as believable as senior citizen as they do as newly minted soldiers. Even older soldiers we meet get little flashes of characterization, such as one with a vehement dislike for molasses. I’ve barely even discussed any of the aliens such as a race of tiny humanoids, the powerful and religious minded Consu, the Rraey (who enjoy eating humans), and a number of others all of which get a surprising amount of detail given their relatively small amount of screen time. Scalzi does a great job of encapsulating a hardscrabble frontier battle that instead of being spread across the Old West is spread across the vast regions of space. I was a major idiot for have waited this long to read Old Man’s War and I urge you not to follow my example in waiting! I’ll be keeping an eye on Scalzi’s work more closely in the future (I did quite like The God Engines as well) and look forward to seeing what he comes up with next. I’m just about done with the sequel to Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, so stay tuned for that review next week!