Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Book Review: Old Man's War by John Scalzi

When you get right down to it, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is a time machine. It’s the first book in a long, long time that filled me with the sense of wonder I felt back when I was in elementary school reading science fiction for the first time.

Even before I started reading SF again, I knew who John Scalzi was. He was the blogger whose column a friend of mine suggested I read. So I did. He was the guy who wrote That Book, the one that just about everyone around says I should read. Finally, I did, and only one question comes to mind: what the heck took so long?

Old Man’s War, crisply written and gripping with actual human emotion, is now one of the books on The List I tell just about everyone I know to read.*

Like few things in the literary world, I appreciate opening lines. I know that we writers are supposed to have killer opening lines to make the agent, first, the editor, second, and, finally, the reader, continue reading through the first paragraph, the first page, and the first chapter. I admit that this focus on openings lends itself to missing a book like, say, Megan Abbott’s Die a Little (my review), that has a slow burn to a satisfying conclusion. Old Man’s War has an opening that, while it doesn’t grab you by the suit jacket, throw your against a wall, and demand you read further, nevertheless makes you curious and want to know more.
I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army.
If you’re like me, you did a double-take. How in the heck can a seventy-five year old man join the army? Scalzi’s first person POV narrator, John Perry, is your guide and, through his eyes, we experience a second life.

It’s not giving anything away, I think, to reveal that Perry and all the old farts receive new bodies. I mean, how else are they going to fight all the aliens out in our galaxy. What gives Old Man’s War its humor is the transition from old human to young newer human. And I think you can figure out what the new/young do as soon as they get their new bodies. Just like the old codgers in the movie “Cocoon,” these new recruits hump each other like rabbits.

Things get down to business after the new recruits to the Colonial Defense Force arrive at basic training. As a writer well versed in pop culture, Scalzi knows that we’ve all seen this type of thing before in countless movies and books. Inexperienced recruits arrive at basic training with a hard-ass drill sergeant who torments and reshapes the young men into fighting men only later to relent and tell them they’ve made him proud. Thing is, Scalzi’s drill sergeant has *also* seen those movies and proceeds to blow away all the stereotypes of a drill sergeant...while being just what you’d expect. It’s during these chapters where Old Man’s War comes the closest to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, one of the seminal SF books out there. Wisely, I think, Scalzi doesn’t stay too long here and moves us into the broader war.

Act III of the book is John Perry and his fellow troopers fighting various aliens on various planets. It seems humanity was born in an out-of-the-way part of the Milky Way and there are only so many hospitable planets in the galaxy to colonize. Those same planets, for various reasons, are also being colonized by other alien races. It’s the job of the Colonial Defense Force to secure a place for humans to establish a beachhead colony or take out any indigenous or invading force. This section is full of good war prose and action and John and his team get into some hair-raising situations.

What got me in Act III was, of all things, the introduction of a new mystery. The first mystery was how do old people fight wars. Perry solved that mystery early. It’s in Act III, when Perry is down bad, where a new mystery emerges. I thought to myself “Why is Scalzi introducing a brand-new mystery this far into the book?” A quick scan of my ebook version revealed that, in fact, he had planted the clues earlier on and I’d just missed them. It was a brilliant thing to do and his explanation of who and what the ghost brigades are brought the story even more to a human level. Of course, had I actually remembered that the sequel to Old Man’s War was titled The Ghost Brigades, I’d have been less surprised. Let’s chalk one up to forgetfulness.

For all of the whiz-bang gadgetry of this story, it’s the human element that drives the novel and gives it life. We care about Perry and he makes a sympathetic character. Early on, when the new recruits are talking about what they miss about Earth--the only caveat of joining the CDF is that you can never return to Earth--Perry says that he misses being married. The others laugh until they realize Perry’s being serious. Throughout the story, you learn about Perry’s first life and, just like the rest of us, his marriage wasn’t perfect. But he appreciated his life with his wife and that knowledge fuels his drive to fight for Earth.

Moreover, Scalzi grounds the novel in realism with real things we all recognize. The story takes place in some future that is never dated. But Perry talks about cars, computers, movies, music...things we know and love. This is the kind of SF I can really get behind, SF that projects itself forward from our current time and to imagine what life might really be like here, on Earth, decades in the future.

A word about the audiobook: I listened to this story as read by William Dufris. Like few voice actors doing audiobooks, Dufris brings his characters to life. With it being a first person POV, you get the sense that Dufris himself *is* John Perry. He drags out certain phrases and gives others a certain intonation that, frankly, makes the words being spoken funnier than on the page. Dufris is rapidly becoming one of my favorite audiobook readers.

Like SF from the golden age of Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein, Old Man’s War transports you to a future that is at once dire, fascinating, and hopeful. In the end, however, it’s an optimistic future. Yes, we humans still have to struggle to maintain our race in the galaxy. Yes, it takes the blood of the young to defend the homeworld. But that’s what we humans have been doing from the beginning. We fight for what we believe in. We lay down our lives for our brethren. It’s a fundamental truth about our race, a truth that John Scalzi shows us in his fantastic book.

Thus, Old Man’s War is a time machine in that it can take us readers back to our younger days with its glorious sense of wonder. But the book is also a time capsule. If some future alien race wanted to know about humanity, who we are and why we do the things we do, Old Man’s War could be one of the books the alien could read to understand what it’s like to be human.

*Other books on The List include The Dawn Patrol, Mystic River, The Shadow of the Wind, Ender’s Game, Hyperion, and Money Shot, among others.


  1. Lovely review, Scott. I've also been meaning to read Ender's Game for forever. Loved Dawn Patrol and Mystic River, of course.

  2. Now you need not wait so long to read the other books in the series, as well as The Android's Dream. If you've ever read any Philip K. Dick, you;ll know where influences for that last one came from. The sequel to that one is to be titled The High Castle.

  3. Thanks for this review. Another one for my TBR list.