Old Man’s War

March 2nd, 2006
This entry is part of 2 in the series Old Man's War

Scalzi is one of the new generation of Net-savvy genre authors, with a well maintained and frequently updated blog called (with refreshing honesty) “Whatever“, connections to the usual suspects, and even a book available for free download. Above and beyond all that, though, if Old Man’s War, his first published novel, is any indication of his abilities, Scalzi is one of the best new Science Fiction authors to come along in years, and he has some truly original takes on some of the genre’s most dearly beloved themes and scenarios. This book was fun, compelling, and even genuinely touching…something that can’t be said for a lot of the military SF that gets published. Our protagonist is the intentional Everyman from the American midwest several centuries in our future; a retired advertising executive and a widower still mourning his wife. At 75 he sees the last years of his life approaching rapidly and few ties holding him to the place he’s called home, so he does what everyone who approaches that ripe old age in his time must consider doing: He enlists in the Colonial Defense Force. No one from the mature, moderately populated countries of the world is allowed to leave the Solar System by the Colonials who control all interstellar flight until they’ve lived a full life there already, and then the only way to the stars is to sign away all rights to ever come back, or communicate in any way with those left behind. The Colonials are far more technologically advanced than their terrestrial counterparts, and refuse to share that technology with Earth more than is necessary for trade, but the technical advance they hold that tempts more than the adventurous few elderly folks into space is simple: they can make you into a soldier capable of defending their civilization; a civilization that is apparently constantly at war. No one on Earth is sure exactly how they do it, but everybody knows that somehow, some way, they can defeat age… Perry is taken into space, meets and befriends fellow old codgers taking the same trip, and gets transformed in an intriguing (and delightfully modern in sensibility) way that I won’t spoil for you. He goes through basic training, showing great promise…and then he’s sent off to fight the enemies of mankind. It turns out sentient life is plentiful out there…more plentiful, really, than the planets which can accommodate them. Competition is fierce, and cooperation is rare, so humanity has to fight to keep the worlds it has…and, usually, fight for the new worlds it needs. The CDF does its best to train and equip its soldiers, but if war against human beings is unpredictable, war against aliens of every conceivable size, shape, technological prowess, and psychology is even more so, and the casualty rate is high…very high. Perry’s friends die off one-by-one, until only a very few are left; and when one of Earth’s colonies is attacked and occupied, Perry is the only survivor of a small fleet sent to retake it. It’s up to him and some mysterious new friends from the CDF elite forces to neutralize the enemy’s new technological advantage against impossible odds. Scalzi has taken one part Starship Troopers, one part The Forever War, and a healthy dose of modern sensibilities and created a whole new SF universe in which to tell the universally true stories of a soldier. His tech is believable and interesting (his FTL “Jump” Drive is delightfully innovative variant of Adams‘ Improbability Drive, and the plot exploit involving how it works is rational and well implemented), his characters are by turns funny, melancholy, and inspiring, and his prose is light without detracting from the gravity of some of the material he’s addressing. Perhaps most important, though, is the perspective on maturity his central device lends to a genre that all too often is focused on the coming-of-age story; maybe we have enough stories about plucky youths to last us for a while. Give some occasionally bitter, often snarky, usually wise old fogies a chance. You’ll be glad you did.

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