Friday, November 19, 2021

"Old Man's War" by John Scalzi--Fiction Review

Alright, Obscurists, aging sucks, but there’s no way around it. But what if you could get a second start in your seventies? Sounds good, like in “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi—oh, and you need to also join the army, and your second life will probably end tragically soon and violently. But! Other than that. It’s all peaches.

John Scalzi

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

I’ve read a few of Scalzi’s books before picking up “Old Man’s War,” the first of which was “Redshirts.” Liking those books—a lot—but never actually loving them, I was surprised at how much this book struck me. Like the rest of his work, I’m familiar with, it oscillates between being profoundly funny and tragic science fiction. That said, there is something about the pathos of John Perry, the protagonist, that pushes this novel to another level for me than the other Scalzi books I’ve read.

I think I love John Perry as a character so much first because he’s a soldier but not your traditional soldier. Perry doesn’t join the army until he’s in his seventies—and if you can’t wrap your mind around why he’s so effective as a soldier, clearly it’s for science fiction reasons, though I’m not going to spoil the “how” as of yet. Novel as that all is, the real reason I’m enamored with this character is that you can feel the weight of Perry’s lived experience carried with him from his long life at all points of the story. A lot of the time, I don’t believe highly functional “old” characters because many writers don’t know how to write them, in my opinion. They just feel and act like young characters, and their age is really just an artifice of the story. 

Perry’s relatable-ness as a grandfatherly type extends to the rest of the cast of supporting characters too. This means that once sci-fi-style super-advanced warfare starts happening, it’s terribly sad when characters start dying.

What I don’t love about this book:

So this book is famously—as famous as things go with these things—inspired by Robert A. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers,” a science fiction classic that, for all its merits, I ideologically speaking just don’t like. This book and that book exist in a pessimistic vision of the future. They inhabit the polar opposite of where I first entered into my love of the genre as a boy, which is with “Star Trek.” I can still like them, even love them, but ultimately not to the same degree as I love the more optimistic stories in the genre.

Clearly, this book is about a war, hence the title, and I feel it’s only a small spoiler to reveal that it’s a war against aliens. Not just one group of aliens, but several different and not necessarily affiliated groups of aliens. Building off my unease about the inherent pessimism of future space war, it’s especially bleak for me that all other spacefaring species humanity encounters are hostile, and conflict is just inevitable. It goes a step further to even suggest that not only is conflict unavoidable with alien life but that anyone who doesn’t think so is either naïve or trying to self-aggrandize—or both. There is lip service that peace should be possible, but it isn’t really explored, at least not in this story.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

John Perry is an old man—seventy-five to be exact. So it’s odd after saying goodbye to his wife, at her grave, that he’s about to leave Earth forever and join the army. At first, not much is known about the Colonial Defense Forces other than they’re an army that exclusively recruits old people.

On the space elevator up from Earth to meet up with a deepspace-faring starship, Perry starts to meet new friends amongst his fellow old people recruits. At first, they’re unsure how they’ll be of any use, old and frail as they are, in any sort of war. The answer to that question is soon revealed when the CDF demonstrates its advanced technology that allows for transferring a person’s consciousness from one body to another. In the case of the recruits, they’re all transferred into cloned younger bodies of themselves that are also technically and genetically modified to enhanced superhuman levels.

They all enjoy a few days, taking advantage of their second youth, often in a risqué manner before finally being transported to another world where boot camp begins. Boot camp for super soldiers isn’t fun, to say the least. Soon after boot camp, during his first real battle, Perry is instrumental in devising a novel new tactic that helps the CDF win quickly—thus beginning his rise in his new military career. Most of his friends he met as a recruit aren’t nearly so lucky and promptly start dying, one-by-one, through the attrition of endless, repeated warfare.

While continuing to be very successful, which means lots of killing, Perry has a minor breakdown. He’s dissatisfied that the universe seems to be a universally hostile place. Shortly after this, he and the soldiers under his command fight in the Battle for Coral against a species called the Rraey that enjoy eating humans. The battle is a disaster. The CDF is routed from the start and soundly defeated, with a grievously wounded Perry as the only survivor.

Perry was rescued by human special forces called the Ghost Brigade. The specific unit that saved him was led by a woman who mysteriously looked like a younger, super soldier version of Perry’s dead wife. It turns out that, in a sense, the soldier who saved him, Jane Sagan is a version of Perry’s deceased wife. Just because Perry’s wife died didn’t mean that the CDF didn’t make her a clone when she enlisted like Perry had. She just wasn’t around to transfer her consciousness into the clone, which means Jane has none of her memories.

At first, their association is rocky, but eventually, Sagan becomes curious about who Perry’s wife was when she was alive. She even manipulates her chain of command to get Perry promoted to an advisor role so he can accompany the special forces on a mission to find out how the Rraey got the technology necessary to ambush the CDF. Perry uses his new status to get his few remaining friends shuffled out of active duty and into non-combat roles in the military. 

After discovering where the Rraey got the tech, Perry and Sagan participate in the battle to retake Coral. This time the mission is a success, largely thanks to Perry. Perry even manages to return the favor and saves a severely wounded Sagan. They’re separated at the end but hope to be reunited after their terms of military service are up.


“Old Man’s War,” as you might expect with military sci-fi, spends a lot of its time speculating on how the military fits in, in the future. But it’s also a cut above its kin in the sub-genre because it also explores other aspects of life in great detail. Topics like aging, what it would be like to get a second chance at life, marriage, love in general, and the deep connections of friendship.

Despite often being about some really heavy topics and set in such a bleak setting, the genius of Scalzi makes it, so the story never feels too dark for any length of time. It’s like the military sci-fi equivalent of “Scrubs,” a comedy/drama tv show about young doctors, in case you don’t know. The lighter moments and funny banter make you fall in love with these characters—especially the Old Farts—Perry’s group of friends. It also makes their grisly deaths as part of the war all the sadder.

The clever banter, the initial lighter tone, and quick character sketching are also genius shortcuts to our emotions. Perry is our protagonist, and the story never leaves off its focus on him and his development. In just this book, there isn’t enough time to fully flesh out and characterize every single one of the recruits that join at the same time as Perry. So instead of just developing the supporting characters poorly or drastically lengthening the book, as many a lesser writer would, Scalzi sets out on a third, more interesting choice.

The trick of his major, minor, and supporting characters is that he creates quick, convincing facades of fully fleshed-out characters, gives them a few easily remembered defining traits, and each a quick moment in the sun. Through implication, the overall effect is that it feels like Perry’s world is populated by seemingly fully realized characters with hopes and fears, backstories, and lives outside of their association with Perry. All without going too far out into the weeds with any of them keeping the story trim. Other than Perry, of course—who receives the bulk of the character growth and development.

Parting thoughts:

What I think resonates the most with me about this story is that I believe the age of the characters in the novel. They felt like old people in this situation. Often I find it hard to believe the age of characters in fiction, especially the older they are, but still, seventy-five isn’t so old that it stretches the imagination.

The hallmark type of story with hyper long-lived human characters who are also inexplicably young and vital are vampire stories—vampires once being human in this example. However, I don’t think I’ve ever actually been convinced of the feel of a fictional character’s super-advanced age. The elves in the “Lord of the Rings” certainly feel ancient and timeless, but they don’t count because they’re not human. They’re elves.

From Lestat—the Anne Rice vampire—to the Meths in “Altered Carbon,” I’ve never felt like these long-lived characters in fantasy and sci-fi—felt particularly old or ageless. I think it’s because their goals, motivations, and ambitions all seem to be just as in the moment, and as transient, as our short-lived lives. Part of this failure of imagination is because they’re all written by short-lived creatures, us, but it makes me wonder if this is an inescapable feature of our species, having evolved this way. Or maybe, if we do progress to the technology levels like in sci-fi, we’ll be radically different at profoundly old ages than we can imagine now.

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