Getting Old Sucks
There’s no getting around it. Days turn into weeks, weeks into months, months into years, and before you know it your kids are old enough to vote and you’re unironically bitching about your bad knee. The steady march of time has an amazing ability to bring the Big Questions into sharp focus. What’s going to happen after I’m gone from this place? What’s the next life (if any) going to be like? What about those I’m leaving behind? What’s it all mean?
Am I going to get specialized small unit combat training in the afterlife?
Okay, not everyone asks that last one, but that’s only because not everyone’s read John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and that’s a damn shame.
What’s Going On?
The Earth of Old Man’s War is, unbeknownst to its inhabitants, held under a benign kind of quarantine by its own space-faring Colonial forces. Citizens from underdeveloped countries are given the opportunity to become colonists and journey to new worlds, but for more advanced nations there is only one way to reach the stars – enlist in the Colonial defense forces at the ripe old age of 75. It’s not really a very enticing deal: you’re declared legally dead, sever ties with your family and friends, and contractually agree never to return to the life you’ve left behind.
The only upside, besides a chance to see the universe? You’ll be made young again… somehow. Details are sketchy, speculation is rampant, and the answers are a closely guarded secret. Many don’t enlist. The rest must take a leap of faith, hoping that what’s waiting for them is better than the life they’re trading in.
As John Perry finds out after joining up, the Great Beyond is posthuman in more ways than one. His old body is tossed aside, his consciousness transplanted into a brand new clone based on his DNA, but slightly improved; genetically engineered for combat, sterile but (of course) sexually able, and paired with a supercomputer implant. It’s a lot to take in; thank goodness the Colonial defense force provides a high-gloss brochure and professionally edited training videos available 24-7 via his new BrainPal™.
Why all the effort? As is explained to the new/old recruits, the universe is a scary place – we are not alone, and very few of the other sentient species are interested in cordial conversation – in short, habitable worlds are the galaxy’s most limited resource, and humanity is a latecomer to a bloody, no-holds-barred game of musical chairs. The aliens of Old Man’s War are vicious – those that don’t view us as competitors instead broadcast celebrity-hosted cooking shows detailing the best ways to prepare human colonists on a budget.
The Obligatory Heinlein Mention
Given the reviews that I and others have on our to-do list, it’s safe to say that TMC readers are going to see more than a few mentions of Heinlein. Honestly, it would be impossible not to mention him, given our focus on “space” and “war” – he literally wrote the book, several times over. From Have Spacesuit Will Travel to The Star Beast to Glory Road to (of course) Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, his influence is impossible to deny. I’ll do my best to keep the references to a minimum, but since Scalzi went out of his way to mention him in his acknowledgements, it wouldn’t make much sense if I didn’t follow suit as part of this review.
On its surface, Old Man’s War certainly fits the Heinlein mold. Interstellar adventure? Check. Aggressive alien species? Check. Smart, unusually-fortunate protagonist who gets laid frequently? Check check.
But I don’t want to give the impression this is some kind of pastiche, because it’s anything but; if Old Man’s War reminds the reader of Starship Troopers from time to time, it’s not because any specific element has been copied, but because Scalzi has thoroughly and respectfully absorbed Heinlien’s works and, ink-sweat dripping from his feverish pores, produced something wholly his own – lit from within by the author’s brisk mastery of language, control of tone, and an examination of love and family that Heinlein never quite managed.
Is it a perfect book (or “stunning” as the cover claims)? No. The main character is, as I’ve mentioned, unusually fortunate – he seems to always meet just the right person at just the right time, and the former advertising writer’s unlikely knack for small unit tactics starts to make him seem something of an idealized character. If it weren’t for what seems to be his genetically-indelible Midwestern humility, he’d be dangerously close to insufferable (at least until a lovely plot twist throws him for a loop in the second half of the novel).
With that said, there’s far more to recommend than criticize. The same writing style that sometimes isolates the reader from the protagonist lends itself to fantastic combat narration. The book moves along at a blockbuster clip – I finally had to abandon the (wonderfully voiced) audiobook five or six chapters from the end of the story because it simply wasn’t getting me there fast enough.
But what really sets Old Man’s War apart are plot twists that take the story (and our main character) to a new level, leading to both a truly satisfying conclusion and setting up an extremely intriguing concept for another book in the same setting – no small trick. Sorry if I’m being vague, but believe me when I say I’m doing you a favor – no spoilers could possibly pay off as well as reading it for yourself.
Should You Read It?
In a way, nothing I say in this review makes the least bit of difference. Old Man’s War is a Hugo-nominated book, generally accepted by any fan of the genre as ‘good’ (at the very least), so why should I bother?
Because maybe you're like me.
I went years without reading Old Man’s War, despite the almost-universally great reviews – because of the reviews, actually – I was suspicious of the hype, and it took meeting the author at a book signing to get me to take the plunge. I’m glad I did – I’m only sorry I waited so long, and I'd like to save you from that.
Maybe you don’t trust a book with too many good reviews. Maybe you heard it compared to Starship Troopers one too many times. Maybe you don’t like bloggers-turned-published-authors. Maybe, just maybe, no one’s recommended it to you.
Let me, at least, correct that oversight.
Old Man’s War is excellent – a humorous, intelligent examination of the horrors of war and the wonders to be found in the infinite complexity of the universe – it’s got everything that’s good about military scifi. Thought-provoking questions. Technology not quite close enough to touch, but close enough to inspire. Humor. Affection. Some good old-fashion bug hunts.
It kicks the hell of most of the stuff out there. Do yourself a favor and check it out.