Thursday, June 19, 2008

John Scalzi - Old Man's War (Book Review)

"Old Man's War" (Amazon: UK, USA)
by John Scalzi
Format: Paperback, 320 pages
Publisher: TOR Books

---"Then Maggie turned, faced the planet that would kill her, and like the good professor of Eastern religions that she used to be, she composed jisei, the death poem, in the haiku form.

-----Do not mourn me, friends
-----I fall as a shooting star
-----Into the next life

---She sent it and the last moments of her life to the rest of us, and then she died, hurtling brightly across the Temperance night sky.

---She was my friend. Briefly, she was my lover. She was braver than I ever would have been in the moment of death. And I bet she was a hell of a shooting star."---(pg.163,164)
My pile of unread books is not getting any smaller, if anything it's growing bigger on a weekly basis, since I like to buy books faster than I can read them. That's o.k. though, because I like a vast array of books to choose from. When I was deciding what to read next, I was consciously looking for a short, entertaining and fast paced SF novel, as opposed to the sprawling fantasy epics I've been reading lately (e.g. "The Bonehunters"); and you know what, "Old Man's War" turned out to be all that and more.
"Old Man's War" is the Hugo Award nominated debut effort (it lost to "Spin" by Robert Charles Wilson in 2006) from the veteran blogger (Whatever) and the prestigious John W. Campbell Award winning author in the category for Best New Writer in 2006, John Scalzi. The novel garnered much praise and was later serialized/followed by "The Ghost Brigades" in 2006 and "The Last Colony" in 2007, but that is a story for another time...
The main premise (catch) behind the story of "Old Man's War" is -- as the title already implies -- how to make old people useful again for the society. The story is told through the eyes of John Perry, a 75 year old geezer, who enlists into Colonial Defense Forces for the same reason as many of the 75 year olds do - the prospect of getting young again. The fear of dying is stronger than all the moral and religious objections that one might have had towards army servitude and all that goes with it when young and full of ideals. We then follow his journey towards the training facility, the whole process of "rejuvenation" and all the consequences this corporeal change brings to a couple of thousand people with very alienated relationship towards their bodies; forming of new friendships (the clique of "Old Farts", as they name themselves) and finally John's participation in intergalactic war where the race of men battles myriad of diverse and rapacious alien races for the right of colonization and expansion. What makes all this work on a whole another level is John's personality and his view on events as the they unfold. He is a thoughtful and very likable protagonist with a great sense of humor (subtle and witty, not the all over the place hilarious).
The conscripts exchange witty banter throughout the novel and this makes for a very refreshing read. Characterization, or rather the main protagonist, is without a doubt the biggest strength of the novel, before all other aspects - such as style, elements of "hard science", plotting or the lackluster worldbuilding. What I found a bit strange is that the the "old" people act, think and feel no different than a 25 year old person would; but I've also heard that people often feel young (and even immature) regardless to their advanced age and a life time of experience, so this minor gripe of mine might not really be a real problem of plausibility. Some of the side characters feel somewhat flat and one-sided though. For example, one of the side characters' most notable trait is his rampant appetite (or at least this is the only thing I've remembered him after) and Scalzi later on "offs" him by having some strange, sentient slime mold jump into his mouth and down his throat, suffocating him.
The world that Scalzi creates does not awe the reader, but although the worldbuilding doesn't play a major role in the narrative it still serves it well and compliments the plot and characterization, so that it leaves more than enough room for character interplay. Some of the body modifications and enhancements that the soldiers receive are pretty cool - something that every athlete (SmartBloodTM, green skin, HardArmTM) or whiz kid (BrainPalTM - an internal computer, incorporated into your body) would kill for, but it's really nothing that hasn't been done before. The universe is large and dangerous, inhabited by (mostly) belligerent alien races that kill, eat each other and contend for scarce resources and inhabitable living space. This pessimistic world-view and the harshness of the struggle is covered up well with lighter elements, such as John Perry's witty musings and the bantering dialogues between characters. Scalzi actually makes good use of info-dumps (tell, rather than show), but they are low on tech-speech, relevant and unobtrusive to the narrative. He makes this approach work for him and that's what matters the most.
As I've already mentioned, the dialogue is really effective in its companionable nature and keeps you turning the pages as much as the fast-paced, economical narrative and the likable protagonist. "Old Man's War" is an extremely likable military sf novel; a younger, more playful version of "The Forever War" by Joe Haldeman (review), with a more sympathetic hero and ultimately more enjoyable story, but it also has a lesser degree of scientific detail and societal speculation. So while "Old Man's War" offers nothing exceptionally new or mind-blowing to the genre it nonetheless kept me well within the comfort zone and this counts for a lot in my book, since I am not easily entertained for, oh, I don't's been a while now (the old Grumpy syndrome, I know :)). Recommended? Hell yeah.
If you want a second opinion visit A Dribble of Ink, where Aidan posted his thoughts on the book just a couple of days ago.



Aidan Moher said...

Nice review. I'm glad you enjoyed it as much as I did.

I think you sum it up perfectly when you say it's "a younger, more playful version of The Forever War".

Any plans to read The Ghost Brigade and The Last Colony?

A Dribble of Ink

Thea said...

Great review! I've been looking for a military sf to pick up, and I think I'll give Old Man's War a go. The premise sounds intriguing, and a little less daunting than The Forever War.

ThRiNiDiR said...

Hi Thea, I'm glad that you enjoyed the review; as far as military SF goes, I don't think you'll be disappointed, but The Forever War rocks as well :) it's just not as big on entertainment value.

Chris, The Book Swede said...

I've been meaning to get this one for a long time -- will do now! Great review :)

I love Scalzi's blog, so I really should have picked it up earlier!

ThRiNiDiR said...

Thanks Chris, I appreciate it.


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