Title: “Old Man’s War”
Author: John Scalzi
Pages: 320 pages
Publisher: Tor Books
Summary: John Perry is 75 years old, when he joins the Colonial Defense Force. In the future in order to keep Earth exist, peaceful and complacent a new military force has emerged, independent from Earth with the single mission to protect it. This is a mysterious institution that colonizes the universe to make sure humans keep on living and it’s happy to enlist everyone, only if they are of 75 years or old. Perry only can wonder, how he would perform professional soldier’s duties, but as the story progresses science makes all seem possible. What follows is space travel, dangerous missions, forming new friendships and losing dear people, a career in military and of course making it through another day. It is one heck of a journey Perry meets with his humor and optimism.
Classification & Literary Class: I had the vague idea that it would be around the end of February that I would have the chance to post something about the Sci-Fi Experience event I participate in. “Old Man’s War” came highly recommended by none other by two of the most devoted fantasy fans, who by the way happen to have broad tastes. This has to say something about the novel itself, since the genre tag says military sci-fi. The novel is divided into three parts, which respectively cover Perry’s training, his first missions and his climb on the military ladder.
True and devoted sci-fi fans with intimate novels can discuss the strengths and weaknesses as a military sci-fi novel and its relation to tradition and other similar titles. I am not an expert and don’t know the first thing about the native tropes or scenarios, but as a reader I found “Old Man’s War” to be a delightful and humorous read. The first half, around 160 pages, carries the story with the most successful jokes I have yet to read in a novel. Scalzi has given John Perry the ability to crack jokes at any time. This works positive in the first part to keep the spirits lifted before the story picks momentum. It also serves as an ingenious way to keep the introduction to the world and its technology and rules interesting without turning into tedious info dumps. People, who don’t enjoy sci-fi for its trend to get lost in space gadgetry and physics, can safely grab the book and enjoy it as it breaks the ice between the reader and the genre.
Characters & Depth: John Perry is perhaps the most likeable man in the universe and for one I wished he could exist. Women would find him as perfect husband material, children would want a father like him, young men to be like him and everybody else would be elated to have him as an acquaintance. John Perry is a fun, positive, smart and shows incentive and decidedness when needed. The man has gotten luck on his side too, which helped him survive barely and all with perfect timing. This makes him perfect soldier material as takes on hurdle after hurdle.
I have to note that “Old Man’s War” is as an interconnected series of vignettes that record the protagonist’s military life, his missions and his personal recollections and interactions. It is a sort of journal without the novel having been written as one, which wouldn’t have worked at all, if the protagonist wasn’t likeable and had no charisma. “Old Man’s War” has this voyeuristic quality in the sense of we see a person’s life and we watch how he transforms in his new environment, pushes through each day, handles loss, deals with nostalgia, survives and wins battles, celebrates victory.
This is what John Scalzi writes about, at least for me: human nature, ties between people, war, its role and military life. However this can’t be achieved without a supporting cast. Military life is life like no other, whether you like it or not. Pressure and knowledge it can end suddenly speed up everything from forming friendships, to feeling attached, to living and bearing loss. Faces keep changing, people that are decent and talented or generally good die, because life in war is uncompromising. Such are the rules and everyone must abide. Each death is heroic in its own way and serves to Scalzi’s bigger scheme of ideas. Every character so far serves a purpose and never fails to show depth and strength. Those who survive only strengthen their bonds and reflect upon their new and altered lives. Life’s value is something that can’t be wrapped up in words, but it can be shown by actions and “Old Man’s War” is full of them. No more needs to be said.
Worldbuilding & Believability: I believe, and I am ready to take a beating and booing, that fantasy and sci-fi are kind of like twin siblings that have simply drifted into different directions. Fantasy relies on its mythological races and magic. Sci-fi relies on its technology and extraterrestrial life forms. In both cases Scalzi rocks. I am not known to have affection towards physics or electronic blueprints and know-how, so I had some difficult moments in the beginning to digest the conversation about how this and that worked. Thankfully those count on the fingers on one hand. Otherwise the ideas behind space travel, weapons, the way to turn a 75 year old into a fighting machine are beyond interesting and I leave them for you to discover, since that is one great part of the reading experience.
So far sci-fi has been populated with largely humanoid alien species. Star-Trek, Star Wars, The Hainish Cycle and even the Alien movies feature extraterrestrials that are bi-pedal have hands, hand-shaped claws and really go for the homo-sapiens look. Scalzi states that nobody really knows about what can be expected in outer space, how life can evolve in a totally different environment. Looks can be deceiving and no highly evolved rational species needs to be in the mold of humans.
The Verdict: A really strong title. It was something different for me, since I am not fond of the military as a topic or space for that matter, but it is undeniable that the writing is up for the challenge to make you read it. I suppose it would be an overkill, but I can recommend this to anyone, who likes speculative fiction… It has enough appeal to make people cross genre borders and forget about literary snobbism.