Book review of Old Man’s War by John Scalzi


This review of Old Man’s War by John Scalzi was written in 2005 for the British Science Fiction Association‘s magazine, Vector.

Tor, 2005, (US)$12.95, 320pp, ISBN 0-765-31524-6


OldMansWarOn his 75th birthday John Perry does two things: he visits his wife’s grave, then he enlists in the army.

Fortunately for him, this being at some unspecified (but not terribly distant) point in the future, he doesn’t have to impose gunpoint democracy and secure oil supplies; rather he gets taken up into earth orbit via a space elevator and shipped off to join the Colonial Defense Forces, fighting and dying to win a place for mankind in a remarkably busy and even more remarkably hostile galaxy.

On the plus side, Perry and all those like him get new, young and enhanced bodies that could run rings round the finest athletes alive today. Twice. They get some of the finest military hardware the future can offer, and they get to travel and to meet interesting, ahem, “people”.

On the minus side, they have to kill most of the interesting “people” they meet, and despite their restored youth and impressive firepower only a quarter of them can expect to survive their tour of duty and retire to a peaceful homestead on a conquered planet. But then, on earth they would be geriatric and definitely soon to be dead (there being, oddly, no cure for old age there), so the chance of being young again and probably soon to be dead must surely rank as a no-brainer of the highest order.

The first problem I had with Scalzi’s elderly army was that the new-old soldiers were all so bloody nice. All of them seemed to have come through 70-odd years of life on earth as well-rounded, thoughtful and balanced individuals (the only one who hasn’t dies before getting his new body). Where are the bitter old codgers who’ve wasted their life with nothing to show for it and have more in common with a squeezed lemon than a human being?

That’s a fairly minor problem though, and maybe it’s just me being horribly cynical. A bigger problem with Old Man’s Army was the setting. The earth of the near future is very, very much like it is now. In fact, the only obvious differences are that the USA has had to nuke India during a war with the subcontinent, and there are space elevators and spaceships in orbit.

The more we learn about the galaxy the more incredibly cut-throat and dangerous it sounds and the more earth seems like a kindergarten backwater, an idyllic pastoral eden by comparison. Given the vast military campaigns taking place – the stunning victories and devastating reversals, not to mention the gobsmacking logistics and expenditure surely necessary to support them – the isolation of earth and any colonies reads as far-fetched.

And finally, perhaps I’ve just read too much genuinely hard sf in the last year or so, but the idea that our galaxy is just stuffed to the gills with dangerously acquisitive alien species all at a roughly equivalent level of development, such that none is able to simply wave a Clarke-ian magic wand and abracadabra all the others away, sorely tested my ability to accept Scalzi’s universe. The set-up felt designed as an excuse for the book’s basic tenet of old people in young bodies fighting aliens.

Old Man’s War seems to be meant as a piece of realistic space opera, to be taken at face value, rather than as allegory or parable – forms that might not merely invite, but actually get away with, such a unrealistic set-up.

It might be worth mentioning that Old Man’s War has drawn more than a few comparisons to the works of Robert Heinlein, and also that of the Big Three sf writers. I always preferred Clarke first, Asimov second, and old RAH a very distant third, not to mention the fact that I think The Forever War – which this book also draws easy comparisons to – is one of my favourite books ever. That might explain at least some of my reaction to this book, and serve equally to recommend it to others with precisely opposite opinions – and there seem to be quite a few (I note that other reviews have been largely favourable).

That said, I believed in and did largely enjoy the book’s earlier sequences – those on earth, in orbit and during the obligatory boot camp scenes. But once these are done with and the shape of galactic “society” became apparent, Old Man’s War seems to drift into becoming a competently written, straightforward military sf adventure with a couple of interesting ideas thrown in about how a future society might persuade people to join the army.

Lacking any big surprises or really radical thinking – and since neither the big battle scenes nor the aliens’ opponents were outstandingly rendered – Old Man’s War eventually became (and this is surely the worst possible crime for any sf book!) not bad, but simply rather pedestrian.


NOTE: John Scalzi sent me a very nice message after this rather damning review was published, thanking me for my time spent reviewing his book and saying he was sorry I didn’t like it, with the result that I may not have become a fan of his books but I did become a fan of John Scalzi. 🙂

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