Book review: John Scalzi — Old Man’s War

I’d been hearing good things about this book for a while, so when it was mentioned as one of the incentives to sign up for Tor’s new online promotion material, I went straight over to give them my email address. The link for the OMW download arrived just before lunch yesterday. I didn’t intend to read it then and there, but flicked through the file to make sure it had downloaded properly. Had my attention snagged by some of the dialogue in the first chapter. Decided to read the first chapter while I was eating lunch.

I read the whole book. It’s *that* good at getting you to turn the pages.

It’s a Heinlein pastiche, primarily influenced by Starship Troopers but with significant nods to some other books, particularly Space Cadet. But it’s an original and interesting riff on those themes, not a knock-off. Here it’s not the young men but the old men who go to war, and there are some well thought out reasons as to why.

The basis of the book is that the Colonial Defense Force has rejuvenation technology, and if you live on Earth the only way you can get access to it is to sign up to be a soldier when you turn 75. One-time only offer, use it or lose it. Nobody on Earth knows exactly what the technology is or does, because part of the sign-up deal is that you are declared legally dead on Earth, and can never, ever return. Oh, and you’re signing for a term of at least two years, and up to ten — and while little detail comes back to Earth about the colonies, it’s clear that soldiering is a risky business.

John Perry’s got nothing to lose. He and his wife made the decision to register as potential recruits when they turned 65. She’s dead now, and there aren’t any other ties strong enough to hold him to Earth. So he enlists in the old man’s war, and finds out just what’s out there on the other side of the sky. It turns out to involve a lot of hostile aliens and a multi-way battle for territory that can get very, very nasty indeed.

Perry’s a decent and likeable man, and it’s fascinating to watch him go through the process of being moulded into a soldier. While this is military sf that makes no bones about it sometimes being necessary to fight to live, it isn’t a lazy glorification of the military. You could equally well read it as a subtle critique of unthinking glorification of the military. There are some significant moral issues raised in a quiet way and simply left there for the reader to think about if they notice them.

There’s a good and funny look at what it means to be old, followed by an exploration of what happens when a mind with 75 years of experience gets a new body that’s not just fifty years younger, but seriously tuned for performance. And there’s some thoughtful discussion of identity and what it means to be human that makes the book more than just a romp. But it’s also a very fine romp, and enormous fun to read.

I do have a couple of criticisms. Perry is both smart and lucky, as befits an action hero, even a 75 year old action hero. But his rapid rise through the ranks and special shininess edge a little too close to blatant Mary Sue territory in places. Yes, it’s a pastiche of the pulp style, but it broke willing suspension of disbelief a couple of times, at least for me. And I found the ending a little too abrupt, feeling as if Scalzi had simply run out of story for now. However, there are two more books in this universe, and I was left wanting to go out and buy them.

(There is also one specific issue which bothered me a *lot*, but it bothers me for personal reasons which won’t pertain to most readers — see Nicholas Whyte’s detailed post on the Bender episode:

plus the discussion in the comments thread for why that scene is the way it is and why some of us still think it comes over as a bone tossed to the more rabid “peaceniks are dumb” milsf fans. Lots of spoilers.)

If you’re a Heinlein fan, this book’s well worth reading. But it works in its own right as well, whether or not you’ve ever read any of the books it’s influenced by. If you’re looking for some milsf with some decent science fiction speculation, this one’s worth a look.

Old Man’s War at Amazon US
Old Man’s War at Amazon UK

Tor’s sign-up page:

Scalzi’s blog