Old Man's War
by John Scalzi
Published by Tor
320 pages, 2006
In No One's Shadow
Reviewed by Andi Shechter
The setup for John Scalzi's Old Man's War is simple enough. If you sign on to fight, you get eternal life. At least, that is, if you survive fighting a war. The characters here are old. The major character, widower John Perry, signs up on his 75th birthday. He's not going to become a 75 year old soldier, exactly, but he doesn't know what will happen. One of the requirements for signing up is that you never go home again. You serve and if you survive, you end up living on another world.
John Perry isn't soldier material, but he becomes an excellent leader of his men ... and his women. He's not a complex guy. His fondest wish, if he could have anything, would be to have his wife back. And that in a weird way could happen, as we see late in the book when we meet the ghost soldiers (who in fact are the focus apparently of the next book in the series).
Try to convince me to read a book because of a tie-in with a television network and -- hoo boy -- you've reached a wrong number. Try to convince me it'll remind me of Robert Heinlein and I'll hand it back, politely saying: "Nope, not for me."
But Old Man's War, while it does bring back some early Heinlein tropes, is so much its own book and a good one too. Sure it involves war against the aliens, saving the human race, but the story -- the real story -- and appeal of this book is the world that John Scalzi has created. The ideas are fresh, the burdens that might weigh down a Heinleinesque swaggering novel of good guys and bad are -- mostly -- nonexistent.
I had some trouble a good part of the way through Old Man's War with the feeling that no one really ever questioned what they were doing. The idea that space travel involved constant warfare, that there were all these other beings trying to take over, well, it's probably naïve but I wonder if that would be so. We have no idea what other beings would want with the universe, so assuming they're all wanting you to "assimilate" because you will be conquered is only one option. But it's the one presented here and, for the purposes of this story, people have to go fight.
There's too much battle and military stuff in Old Man's War; an absurd complaint I know, given the title. What is interesting here for me is less how the battles are played out and won, but far more about the people who fight them. Perry is pretty endearing, and he's got some really good friends. I care less about the ramifications of the Colonial Defense Force (which arguably is as aggressive as its enemies) and care more about the lives of the people, the ramifications of the medical and physical advances which are visited upon these soldiers and the ethics of the various fighting forces.
What Old Man's War does right, though, is overwhelmingly stronger than what it does wrong. Scalzi writes terribly well. He carries the reader through, giving you people to care about and understand. Perry is a likable man, a guy who loved his wife, makes friends, has intelligent conversations and respects good ideas. Any hesitations I had about the Heinleinesque overtones were erased early on. The women in the book are treated as I would hope women on a futuristic Earth would be treated, for the most part. Dialogue is crisp and certain, the new ideas are introduced easily without the common expository lumpiness of new books which are introducing new concepts. Even better, I found myself very interested in reading the sequel. Scalzi wrote Old Man's War to stand alone and it does, but he offers an idea that is engaging enough to intrigue the reader. And given my dismay at the vast number of fantasy sagas that keep arriving -- on and on and on -- huge tomes that promise dozens of books in the series, or bloated trilogies that all seem to have the same story line, this was a fresh and welcome new book.
As I was drafting this review, news came that Old Man's War had been nominated for a Hugo Award for best novel. Scalzi also received a nomination for the John W. Campbell award for best new writer. I don't know that that's happened since the birth of the Campbell award, but a quick check of the Campbell list leads me to believe this is a first. | April 2006
Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.