Tor, 2005, 320 pages
John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wifes grave. Then he joined the army. The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarceand alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding. Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanitys resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They dont want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. Youll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. Youll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, youll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets. John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagineand what he will become is far stranger.
I've read a lot and enjoyed a lot of John Scalzi's novels before, but while I did read Zoe's Tale a few years back, until now I had never read his most famous novel, the one that basically launched his career as a big-name SF author.
When I say Old Man's War is for fans who don't like the military or Heinlein, I don't mean that John Scalzi doesn't like the military or Heinlein — he says outright that this book is a tribute to the latter, and I think he does admire the military in the wistful manner of a man who's never actually worn a uniform himself but would love to have some of the respect rub off on him. He portrays a military that lacks much of a sense of militariness, and he's popular with readers who mostly respect the need for a military, and all the gruesome and gritty work that comes with a functional military, only in the abstract, hopefully as far removed from themselves as possible.
And this is why even though I enjoyed this book, as I have enjoyed most of Scalzi's books, I found myself thrown out of it repeatedly because I was expecting a modern-day version of Starship Troopers, and instead it was more like Agent to the Stars with guns.
Join the Colonial Defense Force and never need Viagra again!
The premise is the signature concept of the story and what earned Scalzi kudos for coming up with an interesting new twist in military SF. It's also somewhat of a spoiler, so don't read further if you hate that kind of thing (though it's explained early in the book).
Humans, in the far future, have colonized the stars, but few people on Earth know anything about what it's like out there. The Colonial Union keeps everything rather hush-hush, only sharing some of its advanced technology back home. (Which was the first thing that puzzled me - the Colonial Union is apparently Earth's extra-solar government, but Earth is still ruled by nation-states, including the U.S. So how was the Colonial Union formed, how did it become completely independent of its parent governments, and if it's powerful enough to control Earth's access to the rest of the galaxy, why doesn't it just take over Earth?)
It's known that there are aliens, though, and that some of them are hostile: hence, the Colonial Defense Force. The CDF recruits people from Earth - specifically, septuagenarians. If you sign an enlistment contract with the CDF, you don't actually ship out until your 75th birthday. You are declared legally dead on Earth, and never seen again.
Earthlings assume that the CDF has some sort of rejuvenation treatment. Which seems to make this a pretty good deal all around — just as you've got one foot in the grave, you have a chance at an exciting (albeit dangerous) new life, while Earth gets rid of a lot of its unwanted senior citizens and makes good use of them.
John Perry, a recent widower, is the first-person narrator of Old Man's War. On his 75th birthday, he visits his wife's grave, and then heads for the CDF collection center.
So, the spoiler part: yes, they get rejuvenated. They're given genetically engineered new bodies with green skin (they have chlorophyll, so they can metabolize sunlight), and one of the first scenes after the old people who met a few days earlier meet each other again in their hot new bodies is that they proceed to fuck like minks in heat.
You even get your wife back, and she looks like this. Art by Erik San Juan
ScalziPerry, the Smartest Recruit Ever
Okay, here the first problems in the book were creeping on me.
First, John Perry, a writer from Ohio, with a snarky sense of humor, a very high opinion of himself and his own cleverness that he tries to leaven with just a little bit of self-depreciation, and a set of generally liberal values that have him easily besting a one-note racist antagonist with glib Bible verses.
Really, John Scalzi-all-of-the-above? Couldn't you maybe at least have made him from New York, or named him Larry?
John Perry joins in the fucking-like-mink festivities in one of those painfully bad sex scenes that give science fiction authors a reputation for writing painfully bad sex scenes, which are tacitly endorsed by their military handler prior to their actually entering basic training. They are told to "have fun" with their new bodies, ostensibly so that a bunch of 75-year-olds who've been used to cataracts and walkers for the past few years can adjust to having hard young bodies capable of Olympic feats.
Except, no, this was the first part of the book that seriously broke my suspension of disbelief. Not that a bunch of septuagenarians who are legally dead and thus not even married anymore, put in new bodies, would not find themselves horny as hell and very willing to "have fun." But that the military would let a bunch of new recruits (even if they are new old recruits) run wild like that, rather than starting to instill the discipline they're going to need for basic training and military life.
This is how most militaries run things - you ship off to basic training, you might not officially start training right away, but you are immediately required to make beds, march in line, wear a uniform, and follow orders. Because these people are coming from a lifetime of non-military conditioning (and for 75-year-olds this would be even more true) and it's vital to start getting their heads into the military mindset as quickly as possible. Unit cohesion and discipline is not just a buzzword.
Now, maybe you could argue "Well, this is the future and they've found better ways to do things!" Except, once they actually start doing the military thing, no, it's pretty much like every military you've ever seen in fiction ever, even if Scalzi does try to hang a lampshade on it with
"Christ on a Popsicle stick," Master Sergeant Antonio Ruiz declared after he had glared at the sixty of us in his recruit platoon, standing (we hoped) more or less at attention on the tarmac of Delta Base's shuttleport. "We have clearly just lost the battle for the goddamn universe. I look at you people and the words 'tremendously fucked' leap right out of my goddamned skull. If you're the best that the Earth has got to offer, it's time we bend over and get a tentacle right up the ass."
This got an involuntary chuckle from several recruits. Master Sergeant Antonio Ruiz could have come from central casting. He was exactly what you expected from a drill instructor-large, angry and colorfully abusive right from the get-go. No doubt in the next few seconds, he would get into one of the amused recruit's faces, hurl obscenities and demand one hundred push-ups. This is what you get from watching seventy-five years' worth of war dramas.
"Ha, ha, ha," Master Sergeant Antonio Ruiz said, back at us. "Don't think I don't know what you're thinking, you dumb shits. I know you're enjoying my performance at the moment. How delightful! I'm just like all those drill instructors you've seen in the movies! Aren't I just the fucking quaint one!"
The amused chuckles had come to a stop. That last bit was not in the script.
"You don't understand," Master Sergeant Antonio Ruiz said. "You're under the impression that I'm talking like this because this is just something drill instructors are supposed to do. You're under the impression that after a few weeks of training, my gruff but fair faade will begin to slip and I will show some inkling of being impressed with the lot of you, and that at the end of your training, you'll have earned my grudging respect. You're under the impression I'll think fondly of you while you're off making the universe safe for humanity, secure in the knowledge I've made you better fighting men and women. Your impression, ladies and gentlemen, is completely and irrevocably fucked."
Master Sergeant Antonio Ruiz stepped forward and paced down the line. "Your impression is fucked, because unlike you, I have actually been out in the universe. I have seen what we're up against. I have seen men and women that I knew personally turned into hot fucking chunks of meat that could still manage to scream. On my first tour of duty, my commanding officer was turned into a goddamn alien lunch buffet. I watched as the fuckers grabbed him, pinned him to the ground, sliced out his internal organs, passed them out and gobbled them down-and slid back under the ground before any of us could do a goddamned thing."
The rest of basic training proceeds exactly as described about, Master Sergeant Antonio Ruiz's assurances to the contrary notwithstanding.
Let's also talk about "futuristic." John Perry, before he leaves Ohio, basically seems to be living in the American Midwest unchanged since the early 21st century except that they know there are aliens out there and he takes a beanstalk up into orbit. There is mention of most colonists being from India or China or other overpopulated nations, but here's how John meets his "band of brothers":
The mess hall was packed but the seven of us managed to commandeer a table. "Introductions," I said. "Let's know each other's names. I'm John Perry, and for the moment at least I'm platoon leader. This is my squad's second in command, Alan Rosenthal."
"Angela Merchant," said the woman immediately across from me. "Of Trenton, New Jersey."
"Terry Duncan," said the fellow next to her. "Missoula, Montana."
"Mark Jackson. St. Louis."
"Sarah O'Connell. Boston."
"Martin Garabedian. Sunny Fresno, California."
"Well, aren't we geographically diverse," I said. That got a chuckle, which was good.
Uh, really? So I guess the United States is the only country that sends people into the CDF?
Reading Starship Troopers and watching Full Metal Jacket does not mean you know the military.
When Scalzi is writing about a futuristic interstellar human civilization where all the named characters are from places like Trenton or Fresno, it just reads as parochial, but no worse than Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury, whose stunning visions of the future also tended to look a lot like the author's immediate neighborhood. (Heinlein, ironically, tended to do much better on that score.) But when Scalzi starts writing about the military, his failure to write what he knows becomes more painfully evident.
I have complained before about Scalzi's characters all having pretty much the same voice, in all of his novels. It's an entertaining voice and he does write snappy dialog, funny and sometimes poignant (though often the attempts at poignancy seem to be striving for a level of profundity that is beyond his grasp), but all of the preceding also applies to his blog, and that kind of summarizes all of John Scalzi's fiction — you're reading characters who deliver dialog in exactly the same "Look at me being all clever!" tone as Whatever.
Harry piped in. "Not to be too crass about this?"
"You just know this is going to be bad," Susan said.
"-but when I went to college," Harry continued, throwing a piece of bread at Susan, "if your roommate died, you were usually allowed to skip your finals for that semester. You know, because of the trauma."
"And oddly enough, your roommate got to skip them, too," Susan said. "For much the same reason."
"I never thought of it that way," Harry said. "Anyway, think they might let you sit out the evaluations they have planned for today?"
"I doubt it," I said. "Even if they did, I wouldn't take up the offer. What else would I do, sit in my stateroom all day? Talk about depressing. Someone died there, you know."
"You could always move," Jesse said. "Maybe someone else's roommate died, too."
"There's a morbid thought," I said. "And anyway, I don?t want to move. I'm sorry Leon's dead, of course. But now I have a room to myself."
"Looks like the healing process has begun," Alan said.
"I'm just trying to move past the pain," I said.
"You don't talk much, do you," Susan said to Maggie, rather suddenly.
"No," Maggie said.
So, when reading about soldiers fighting existential threats to the human race in what is purportedly a Heinleinian tribute military SF novel, I kind of expect to read about soldiers acting and talking like soldiers, with something more than a nodding acquaintance with the concepts of camaraderie, battlefield trauma, unit cohesion, the gap between the civilian and military worlds, the morale-boosting and morale-breaking effects of grime, discomfort, and crudeness, interservice rivalries, contempt for REMFs and despair over the idiocy of generals, desperate need for and distrust of military intelligence, and a certain amount of hardware geekery, though preferably not to the describe-the-caliber-and-weight-and-muzz
Old Man's War makes a stab at it, but it's painfully evident that these are all things Scalzi knows only second or third-hand, by reading books other authors have written about these things.
After the basic training sequence (in which John Perry proves to be the Smartest Recruit Ever, earning the grudging respect of Master Sergeant Ruiz), he and his buddies go out among the stars and start killing aliens. The aliens are interesting, though despite their extreme physical deviation from anything resembling human beings, their politics and personalities remain fairly Trek-like: figure out the key to their culture and you have the entire species in a nutshell, whether they are human-eating deer people or super-advanced religious fanatic crabs.
My go-to comparison for depicting truly alien aliens who regard humans as specks on the table to be flicked off, against whom the human race is just barely holding its own, with no margin for error, is David Brin's Uplift series. Scalzi does not even come close, since his aliens can generally be defeated once John Perry, the Smartest Recruit Ever, figures out the MacGuffin that is the key to defeating an entire enemy force. Not once, not twice, but several times.
Between battles in which people die messily between snarky one-liners, Perry engages in some reflection.
"Technically speaking, you're not human anymore," Alan said. It was an attempt to lighten my mood.
It didn't work. "Well, then, I don't feel connected with what it was to be human anymore," I said. "Our job is to go meet strange new people and cultures, and kill the sons of bitches as quickly as we possibly can. We know only what we need to know about these people in order to fight with them. They don't exist to be anything other than an enemy, as far as we know. Except for the fact that they're smart about fighting back, we might as well be fighting animals."
"That makes it easier for most of us," Alan said. "If you don't identify with a spider, you don't feel as bad about killing one, even a big, smart one. Maybe especially a big, smart one."
The book is a little stronger here where it actually develops the theme of 75-year-olds with a lifetime of experience trying to come to terms with a radically different existence, including fighting Bug-Eyed Monsters among the stars. The interaction with Jane Sagan, who [Spoiler (click to open)]turns out to be John Perry's genetically-resurrected wife also added depth and much-needed meaning to this SF war story.
But it was hard to get past the lack of verisimilitude, the feeling that the CDF's green-skinned supermen and superwomen were civilians working in a dangerous office job that happens to involve being shot at by aliens. When they get together to talk about how war is hell, Scalzi's snappy dialog reads like a bunch of college friends getting together for beer and boardgames, not soldiers mourning lost comrades and wondering why they're here.
Yes, I picked this book apart pretty thoroughly. And yet, it wasn't a bad book. Maybe it just wasn't the book I was expecting. Maybe I was too distracted by a dorky never-worn-a-uniform author trying to slip on the mantle of Heinlein, or by the unashamed Mary Sueness of his protagonist, who gets one lucky break after another, manages to figure out things that in years of fighting, the entire CDF, including the super-genius Special Forces, never have, and gets promoted from Private to Captain in a matter of months because he's just that awesome.
I think Redshirts and The Android's Dream — humorous, light SF — play more to Scalzi's strengths, and a book purporting to be military SF just throws a starker shadow cast on him by his betters.
Have you read Old Man's War?
Have you read any other books by John Scalzi?
Verdict: A good book, not a great book, I'd have liked Old Man's War more if it was more of what it was, a sci-fi adventure starring a clever Earth dude from Ohio, and less of what it was trying to be, a sci-fi war story in the tradition of Starship Troopers. Scalzi's writing is much of a piece, and there is definitely good story here, so despite being quite annoyed with significant parts of it, I'll probably read the rest of the series. 7/10.
Also by John Scalzi: My reviews of The Android's Dream, The God Engines, Agent to the Stars, Fuzzy Nation, and Redshirts.
My complete list of book reviews.