Review: Old Man's War

I read a lot, but even good authors get caught in the deluge of published novels, and nobody can really keep up, so I depend on recommendations. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi was one of those books I’ve never heard of, yet nonetheless maintained critical acclaim in the SciFi community.

Much like The Forever War, which concentrates almost primarily on how war would be shaped by relativistic effects, we’re given an intriguing and rarely explored theme to ponder. What if joining some galactic defense force was the only way to leave the confines of Earth, and further, doing so was a second chance at life? John Perry is given that chance, and on his 75th birthday, he leaves everything he knew behind, and joins a universe entirely of Scalzi’s choosing.

There’s a lot going on, here. Souped-up bodies, consciousness transfer, genetic engineering, the mysterious Ghost Brigades, the Skip drive, acquisition of new technology, the advancement of humanity, and aliens that enjoy delicious Human Tartare. There’s very little, if any, hard scifi, here–it’s all pulp. This isn’t the insult it could be, however. For elements like the Skip drive, the explanation uses just enough contemporary physics to make it believable, while consciousness transfer is hand-waved into existence to avoid sticky philosophical discussions like those that drove the plot of Robert J. Sawyer’s Mindscan. It’s clear Scalzi doesn’t want to bog his story down in unnecessary exposition, a trap too many other authors take ponderous glee in springing.

This kind of story-driven novel comes along rarely, and isn’t really en vogue these days. This isn’t a sweeping space opera, or a hard science tour de force that I’d normally read, but it has great popcorn potential. Comparisons to Starship Troopers in this regard are more than apt; Scalzi takes his premise and sprints with it, and just dares you to ask any impertinent questions along the way. How is Perry, an advertising writer, the most competent member of his batch? Shut up, that’s why! Sure, the advanced bodies the soldiers inhabit are sterile and can’t breed a new warrior class, but the Ghost Brigades prove that’s irrelevant; cloning is faster anyway! Don’t you give me any lip, boy! You better start running!

Old Man’s War revels in the fact these things are all unimportant in the grand scheme. Perry was an old man; Perry goes to war; Perry kicks alien ass; Perry chews bubblegum. Everything else is just window dressing. This kind of flippant dismissal appalling, hilarious, and necessary in my opinion, in the teeming genre. It kept me interested, and that’s really all that matters.

I’ll have to pick up more of Scalzi’s stuff.