Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man’s War

AuthorJohn Scalzi

Pages: 320 pages
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction
Release Date: December 9 2004
ISBN-10: 0765348276
ISBN-13: 978-0765348272

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the Army.”

Hooks, perhaps more than anything, are key to a debut novel’s success and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War has a great one. A really great one. Old people joining an intergalactic war? Count me intrigued. In the tradition of such Science Fiction classics as Heinlien’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Old Man’s War follows the journey of one young old recruit as he enlists in the army and, at the ripe old age of 75, begins life anew.

If you’ve read and enjoyed those aforementioned novels, you’re sure to enjoy Scalzi’s attempt. In fact, I’d be willing to say that it stands up to those two classics in terms of quality. The thing that sets Old Man’s War apart, in my opinion, is simply the fact that it’s the most recently written. Where most of the technology in Starship Troopers and some of the technology in The Forever War feels dated, Scalzi’s vision of the future feels bleeding edge and a natural evolution of the world we live in now, 50 years after Starship Troopers was first written.

As far as protagonists go, Perry’s reasonably interesting and the first person perspective allows his humourous outlook to rise to the surface. One thing working for him is his advanced age; instead of being a young recruit – new to the world and war – he’s instead already versed in the way our world works, but his reaction to being thrust into an entirely different world – one of combat and technology, aliens and inter-dimensional travel – is intriguing in his own right. How does one adapt to a new world when they’ve just spent 75 years learning the rules for the old one?

Just as The Forever War takes a personal look at how culture and race changes as time passes, Old Man’s War takes an equally close-to-the-chest approach to examining genetic engineering and what it means to be a human. Are you still a human when the majority of your body’s been replaced by one grown in a lab, laced with computers and physically enhanced to excel at combat?

Old Man’s War is at times brutal and gory, at others deadpan, contemplative and funny. This conglomeration of emotions and visceral drives the story forward, helping the reader empathize with John Perry. Perry sees a lot of crazy shit and a lot of people die – as in real warfare – but there’s never a real sense of danger in the novel. The first person perspective is partly to blame – one wonders how Perry would be telling his story if he ended up with his head blown off during interplanetary combat. Though I suppose it wouldn’t make for a very structurally sound story if the narrator was killed halfway through….

Speaking of halfway through, it’s about then, or maybe even a bit later, that Scalzi seems to realize that the novel’s sorta missing a plot. The first portion of the novel meanders along, following Perry as he joins the army, and doesn’t have a whole lot of direction. I actually preferred this to the later portions of the novel when Scalzi breaks down the lackadaisical pace, introducing a set of characters and a new storyline rather abruptly. The shift in pace certainly threw me for a loop, though I will admit that the Ghost Brigade (the subject of Scalzi’s second novel, of the same name) are one of the most intriguing aspects of his universe. It’s saying a lot about Scalzi’s ability to craft interesting characters and an interesting universe that he doesn’t have to throw in a defined storyline for it all to work.

It’s impossible to review Old Man’s War and not draw inevitable comparisons to Starship Troopers and The Forever War. In many ways, they’re the same bloody novel, just with a different splash of style slathered over it. To that end, I’d probably stick Scalzi’s telling of the tale smack in the middle – a step above Starship Troopers (too pedantic) and a touch below The Forever War (bloody perfect) – and if company like that doesn’t speak well for a novel, I don’t know what would.

One knock against Old Man’s War, however, is that it doesn’t feel quite as complete as those novels. It ends at a point that, while not a cliffhanger of any sorts, just screams for a sequel and an expansion of the universe. This will appeal to some, but I was disappointed that it didn’t fell as rounded as The Forever War and Ender’s Game – both novels which, though sequels exist, stand perfectly well on their own.

Old Man’s War kept me hooked from beginning to end. After I flipped the final page, I went almost immediately to my local bookstore to see if I could locate the sequel, The Ghost Brigades. If that novel’s anywhere near as riveting as Old Man’s War, then I’m in for a hell of a treat.

  • thrinidir June 19, 2008 at 2:33 am

    Every beats me at this! I’m not reading your review until I finish mine (it will be up either today or in the following few days, which is more viable). I’d say great review, but I’ll be back ;)

  • thrinidir June 20, 2008 at 10:24 am

    Hey Aidan…now I finally took time and read your review (wouldn’t be professional if I copied portions of yours, would it? whether it was consciously or subconsciously :p). Gosh, I forgot to mention the Ghost Brigades, the most intriguing aspect of the friggin’ book! Oh, well *sigh* Seriously though, I think you nailed the review better than I did. Thanks for dropping by though.

    Since I’ve already said that I loved what the Ghost Brigades represent or rather, what a hidden potential for the next book they might be, I’ll be sure to track the book down. Hopefully sooner than latter :). cheers.

  • aidan June 20, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    I was lucky to find a used copy of The Ghost Brigades at a used bookstore right after I finished up with Old Man’s War. I’ve read the first fifty or so pages (before putting it down for The Gypsy Morph by Terry Brooks), and absolutely loved what I had seen so far. I’ll be sure to pick it back up in the next week or so.

    I can’t say either of us ‘nailed’ the review any better than the other, we both tackled our opinions (which were basically the same!) from different angles. When I read your review there were a few times I wished I had touched on some of the same things you did.

    It’s interesting that we both picked up Old Man’s War for basically the same reason – a fast, easy and fun SF read. I think it’s safe to say we both got exactly what we were looking for, eh?

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