I picked up John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War out of curiosity when Jim Butcher mentioned it in an interview. Scalzi’s novel Redshirts recently won the Hugo Award for best novel, which resulted in a lot of furor among literary critics, not because Scalzi did not produce Hugo-worthy material but because Redshirts was nowhere near his best work.
Old Man’s War is an excellent novel in almost every way. The introduction is strong and clear as we follow one of Earth’s many seventy-five year-olds who sign up with the colonial army, never to return, and in return for their military service they get their youth once again.
Scalzi’s aging characters are delightful. They’re old enough to be self-aware and relatively secure in their identity, a brilliant foil of the typical enlistment military drama with its stock of late-adolescent characters.
The speculative fiction of Scalzi’s universe is traditional in the stream of Star Trek and Starship Troopers. Hyperspace-jumping ships carry infantry from planet to planet battling armies of aliens. Unlike Hienlein’s work, this universe swarms with various alien species that all compete for a limited number of habitable worlds, each with their own technology, worldviews, and needs for the stellar real estate.
Scalzi’s battle scenes deliver an equally traditional story of a grunt who rises through the ranks by quick thinking, teamwork, and loyalty. That has always been a pleasant story. There is a reason that it is one of the default tales of military fiction as surely as epic fantasy starts with a boy on a farm.
The aliens are unique, interesting, consistent, and fulfill a larger purpose than bullet-catching. “Know thy enemy” is once again the path to ultimate victory when raw force fails.
This novel shines with standard fare done well. One scene, the drill sergeant’s welcoming speech is not just an item on the checklist of required scenes for a soldier’s story. It is the best rendition of a drill sergeant’s speech that I have ever encountered. I’m including Christopher Walken’s brilliant role in Biloxi Blues, and Marine Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Emery’s career-changing role in Full Metal Jacket. That scene alone is worth the price of the book in paperback.
Lovers of military sci-fi who haven’t already read this book ought to do so.
Scalzi’s excellent delivery of a science fiction staple also shares in flaws in world-view that exemplify his crowd (one of his leading characters is named after Carl Sagan’s family). Earth is backwards and still has religious differences, churches, and the like. Once our characters go out into space they leave that behind with nary a look back. Pesky religion, aren’t we glad to be rid of that so that everyone can work together in peace and harmony as one united government? Actually, one and only one character gets to keep their religion: the eastern philosophies professor. Sex is casual fun in the traditions of sixties and seventies, as soon as everyone has enhanced attractive bodies.
The political ideas and assumptions are three or four decades old, but Scalzi serves them up as well-aged instead of stale. Liberals will find it comfortable. Conservatives have at least built up a resistance through repeated exposure if not outright immunity.
I will be glad if I ever encounter science fiction written by someone who is not anti-religious and whose characters actually act on it (a standard that even David Weber’s otherwise excellent bed-hopping heroes do not live up to).
Until then, Old Man’s War is as good as it gets. I laughed until I cried at the humor, and enjoyed the intellectually stimulating remnant. Good characters, strong motivations, and nice world-building, this comes highly recommended.