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Book Review: Old Man's War

Updated on October 8, 2012

I'm still new to military science-fiction. If you don't count any of the Animorph books, than Starship Troopers was my first taste of the subgenre a few years ago. To say Heinlein won me over is an understatement, I was loving every chapter and couldn't believe how much I liked that book. Recently, I also read Halderman's The Forever War, which I liked, though not as much as Heinlein's entry.

Now, I've read Old Man's War, John Scalzi's turn at the wheel. More recent than either of the other writer's I've read, it's interesting how similar and different Scalzi's book is from his predecessors. But where does it rank compared to these other classics?

Old Man's War takes place in a future when the most common recuits to the military are seventy-five year olds. The Colonial Defense Forces have a system setup to take Earth's elderly and send them to protect colonizing planets. The reason the CDF has such success in recuiting is because joining the military means being young again, the most appealing promise to those who's lives are nearing the end.

I don't want to spoil how the CDF makes older soldiers young, because it's part of the early mystery, but I will say that it's an interesting tactic and one I didn't see coming. The story follows John Perry through his military career and his second chance of youth.

There's a lot of ideas being thrown around in Old Man's War. The BrainPal, an interface system that works in the brain and connects soldiers to each other, is a cool concept. There are moments where Scalzi shows how simple and throwaway some of the action are with BrainPal, but uses it for some dramatic moments. When one of Perry's friends dies, all he can do is recieve the dead soldier's final words over and over again.

The Skip Drive is Scalzi's interstellar travel mechanic and one that works in a very unsettling way. Readers who like the effects of quantum physics will be happy, for sure. I thought the idea was interesting and new but I didn't think Scalzi used the ramifications to their full effect. It's not really his fault, when you have an idea that big inside your main story, it's best to ignore the larger concepts and move forward.

John Scalzi is an interesting writer. His alien races are better thought-out than others in the field. Each race seems to have its own culture and belief system that seperates them from humans and past scifi aliens. From religious zealots to carnivous monsters, there's never a safe place in the universe. In this aspect, Scalzi seems to come ahead of both Heinlein and Haldeman.

Scalzi's dialog tends to work against rather than for him. My biggest problem comes from the humor Scalzi uses in the beginning. When John Perry meets up with others his age, the back and forth conversations seem to be more high school than elderly. Now, I thought this might be exused if you think that the seventy-five year olds of the future will be made up of the youth of today, so maybe the dialog will sound bouncy and wry. But, in terms of the writer creating the sense that these people are older, the wit hurts the concept. It gets better as the book moves along, but it was a glaring problem for me right away.

Old Man's War moves faster than some of the heavy science-fiction books out there; shorter than most but still enjoyable, so it moves by quickly. The problem is that it's the weakest of the books I've read.

While it's good, the book never reaches greatness, either from being distracted by certain ideas or not going deep enough. No character really develops, and even the main character doesn't change much throughout the story. Perry is the same from beginning to end, though maybe a little bit harder than he was in the first chapter. The only real character arch he has is that he misses his dead wife. The world around him doesn't change, either, leaving the reader almost at the same place as the beginning. To be fair, the same can be said for Starship Troopers but Heinlein got away with it from the shear force of his writing and ideas.

The biggest problem seems to be that Old Man's War doesn't seem to stand for anything. Is war bad? Maybe. Is it good? It can be. While Starship Troopers and The Forever War can be seen as strongly right and left, Scalzi takes the middle ground, which isn't all that interesting.

None of these complaints should be taken as dismissive, they're just there to show why I prefer the previous books I've read. Without comparing Scalzi's work to others, Old Man's War is a fun read with an interesting look into the future. There are great ideas and cool races and the solution to aging is one I hope starts working soon. It's not perfect, but first novel's never are. Scalzi doesn't redefine the genre, but he works well in it.

If you're looking for a good military science-fiction read, this is a great novel to pick up. Never too serious and with some heartfelt moments and thoughts on being human, it's a good addition to anyone's to-read list. Just make sure you've read the classics too.

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