Old Man's War

by John Scalzi

Cover image

Series: Old Man's War #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2005
ISBN: 0-765-31524-6
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 316

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John Perry is a recent widower who just turned 75. So he's joining the army.

That's the hook, a quick double-take. On Perry's future Earth, you can sign up when you're 65 to join the (space-faring) military when you're 75. If you do, they make you young again in order to fight. That's the only way to get access to the technology, and once you leave the planet and join the military, you're never allowed to return to Earth again even if you survive (but Perry has no real reason to stay, since the death of his wife). There are various hand-waving explanations about how mature soldiers make better decisions, none of which are particularly convincing. However, the lack of adequate explanation for this bizarre recruiting practice is noticed by the characters and seems likely to be the focus of future books in the series.

Apart from the unusual recruiting age and associated discoveries about how the regeneration technology actually works, this book is remarkably like Heinlein's Starship Troopers except less preachy and with more plot. One gets the standard basic training, the bonding with fellow recruits, the quick advancement of the main character, and even an alien war (although one that's rather more believable than Heinlein's genocidal xenophobes). Scalzi has two significant advantages, however: he can show all of this through the eyes of an intelligent, thoughtful, cynical adult instead of kid, and he does a much better job with characterization and plot.

This is not to say that the book is without substantial flaws. Old Man's War is Scalzi's first novel, and despite garnering quite a bit of quick acclaim and a Hugo nomination, the book is rough in places, particularly in the latter half. However, his treatment of psychology and thoughtful retrospection at the beginning of the book are excellent, and readers who grew up with Heinlein will be delighted by his grasp of Heinlein's first person voice. Perry is flippant but competent, and best of all feels realistically mature. Scalzi does a good job giving the reader a feel for the mental age of his characters without much falling into cliche.

The humor is spottier. Scalzi's main character tries to maintain a light, scarcastic tone, and at times it works brilliantly. The scene where he names his on-board computer support system is perfect, for instance. Unfortunately, much of the humor, often the same joke that's handled well at first, is then belabored and repeated. Sometimes Scalzi seems afraid the reader will miss the joke; at other times, he seems more enamored of a running gag than I was. Either way, repeated humor can quickly become annoying and Scalzi crossed that line several times. I can forgive this for the times where his timing was excellent, but overall it needed work.

One of the difficulties with Starship Troopers was that, if one removed the political preaching, there really wasn't much plot. The narrative is strong through boot camp and then falls apart. Old Man's War has a similar problem; the plot doesn't fall apart to nearly the degree, but that's because it shifts focus abruptly. For the first half of the book, the thematic emphasis is on the nature of one's relationship with one's body and age, the way social groups form, and the psychology of tradeoffs around life and death. Then, abruptly, we're thrown into a larger plot arc (clearly to be continued in the next book) about the Ghost Brigades. There is some thematic carryover in the area of body identification, identity, and human enhancement, but it still feels like plot swap. I'm not sure how much more there was to be said about the initial themes, but I wanted more, and I wanted better unification with the identity themes of the last part of the book.

I came away from Old Man's War mildly impressed but thinking Scalzi was trying too hard. He doesn't yet trust his readers to get the jokes the first time, his dialogue is at times belabored, and at times the book doesn't flow as naturally as it should. That said, it's an excellent Heinlein-style novel while avoiding Heinlein's preachy pitfalls, and there are scenes that prove Scalzi can really write. Definitely recommended for Heinlein fans; for others, particularly those with a distaste for military SF, Old Man's War is pleasant enough but one can find better books. It's highest virtue, like much of Heinlein, is that it's accessible and easy to read while still throwing out a few intriguing ideas.

Followed by The Ghost Brigades.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-06-04

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21