Tuesday, January 6, 2009

John Scalzi - Old Man's War (2005)

I admit that I often fall prey to judging books by their covers. Old Man's War, as you can tell, has a pretty terrible cover. Space ships on a science fiction novel! How terribly original. I can't remember what prompted me to finally bite into this series, but I am terribly happy that I did. Old Man's War is a delight for science fiction fans and non-devotees alike.

The quote on the cover of my edition comes from Publisher's Weekly, and it makes a rather apt comparison to the great Robert Heinlein. Being a fan of Mr. Heinlein, I was simultaneously indignant and excited by the claim. "Okay, Mr. Scalzi," I thought to myself, "you've got an awful lot to prove here." As Old Man's War progressed, I felt more and more like the comparison was well deserved. Scalzi shares Heinlein's gift for creating vivid worlds out of close proxies of our own, strangely similar and yet vastly different from reality.

Old Man's War takes place in a universe where humanity has grown beyond the confines of Earth, taking to space to colonize other planets. The rest of the inhabitants of the void don't take too kindly to this, however, and we find ourselves constantly at war with one crazed species or another. If this sounds tired or trite, I urge you to give it a chance. There are plenty of twists and turns in Old Man's War that I simply don't want to ruin.

The Colonial Defense Forces are our only hope, and they need soldiers. The title of the book comes from the CDF's recruiting policy: They take some of Earth's elderly and turn them into soldiers. Nobody on Earth knows exactly how, all they know is that when you're 75 and you join the CDF, you get a second lease on life. You just need to pledge your service for a few years. Not a bad deal for the geriatric crowd, I'd say.

We live through this bizarre experience as John Perry, retired writer and all-around good guy. Perry's a likable enough fellow, and easy to sympathize with. There isn't a whole lot of extremely deep characterization here, either with Perry or the other members of the supporting cast, but that doesn't really detract from the novel overall. The fact that these are 75+ year old individuals is clear, but not overwritten, much like the characters themselves.

If there's a knock to be made against Old Man's War, it's that Scalzi makes what I consider to be a mistake of the genre by going to the "nanotech well" one too many times. Nanobots are apparently going to be all the rage in the future, and literally every piece of future tech will involve them in some way. It's not that this isn't a plausible outcome or anything, it's just boring to read. Nano this, nano that. We get it, John, you like nanobots. Who doesn't? No need to make them the focus of your science. The few other scientific toys that pop up in Old Man's War are pretty fucking cool. Let's hear more about those next time, eh?

Old Man's War is brilliant in both it's homages and it's originality. Very few things in the genre can stand next to it. It's a fast read, clocking in at only 318 pages, and it will fly past you faster than you'd like. Good thing the series continues.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (Where do I sign up for the CDF?)


autothrall said...

I purchased this book some time ago, it's been sitting in my 'queue' which is like 20-30 books since then.

Maybe it's time to read it.

I will post some more book reviews here at some point, I only did one a while back.

frank austin said...

Yeah, I can't recommend it enough, really. My review of the sequel, The Ghost Brigades, will come as soon as I finish it.

I'm going to try and keep a steady flow of book and other reviews without drowning out the metal, and lest anyone think I've gone soft, I've got a special metal review on the burners.

autothrall said...

Finally got around to this. A very brisk read. Liked it, but didn't love it. The idea is sound, sort of an inverse Enders Game with hints of Starship Troopers and The Forever War, but I didn't like that 'The Old Farts' were always miraculous exceptions to the rule, surviving this or that or having some exceptional death.

The first chapter is great but I did grow a little tired of the main character, he just seemed too perfect.

Otherwise, entertaining enough that I might read The Ghost Brigade.