Friday, 8 January 2010

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Lowdown: A 75 year old joins the army to fight nasty aliens.
In an oddity as far as my reading schedule is concerned, I went and read a book about which I knew almost nothing prior to me starting to read it. What I did know about Old Man’s War was this: (1) it was a science fiction book we’ve received as a gift from a credible source of quality science fiction and (2) my wife read it through really quickly. That’s it; I didn’t even read the back cover.
So what is Old Man’s War about? It’s a story told in first person and starting off on its narrator’s, John Perry, 75th birthday. That special day starts with him paying a visit to his late wife’s grave, followed by him enlisting to humanity’s colonial army: an army in charge of defending humanity’s space colonies from competing aliens short on territory. Despite the story being set a good few centuries in our future, at least judging by the technology and the ease of space travel, an army is still an army and it comes with all the dumb things joining an army includes: things like thick commanders who think they own your ass. Perry addresses those by being incredibly sarcastic, which meant I had a very easy time identifying with him.
Upon recruitment Perry is exposed to extraterrestrial technologies that lead to him (and us) receiving the answer to the book’s ultimate question: what is the point of recruiting frail seventy five year olds to fight? Once this question is answered we follow Perry through his training and then as he fights a multitude of aliens that come in this form and that.
The army side of the story is incredibly similar to books such as Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. Their accounts of a military society, space battles with aliens, and the survival of their narrator against all odds are copied by Old Man’s War almost one to one. The question then becomes, what is the point of Old Man’s War other than provide us with quite a page turner; and the problem is that I am not able to provide a good answer to this question. You can argue that Starship Troopers was written to mirror its era (post World War 2 + Korean War + communist threat); and you can argue that The Forever War is an analogy to the Vietnam War. But what is Old Man’s War about? Don’t know.
Not that this should trouble you much while reading the book because it is quite thrilling and you want to know what’s ahead for Perry. When adding in some philosophical ideas on the morality of war and why it is people go to kill others one cannot argue there is no justification for the book to exist. After all, these are issues I still find myself pondering when I consider my own army career and its morality.
Old Man's War is rightly labeled a science fiction book, but I had a bit of a problem with its science. Coming from the Asimov school of science fiction, I like my science rigid (but not too hard to figure out like is often the case with Arthur C. Clarke). Scalzi's book attempts to provide us with explanations but these often come out rather feeble, as with the explanation on how consciousness is transferred from one body to another. Or, as another example, the way two persons sharing the same genes seem to have some sort of a link between them that's more than the link between your run of the mill twins who also share the same genes. And then there's the biggest challenge of them all: what are the odds of two species from different solar systems having similar technologies that send them into bitter fights, as opposed to one being incredibly superior to the other?
However, with weak spots in mind, I do have to say that Old Man's War biggest problem is its ending: the closer you get to the end the more you realize it has no satisfying ending. I guess you can say the same about Starship Troopers, but in Old Man's War case the book ends with teasers from its sequel and a note from the publisher saying "this is the first book of the trilogy". How shall I best put it? This way: My experience with the Golden Compass trilogy has taught me to be careful with trilogies that seem to start in a promising manner; they might bite more than they could chew.
Overall: I can't deny being a sucker for the Starship Troopers / Forever War sci-fi war books genre. They are great page turners. On the other hand, one expects some more value add to the genre than what Old Man's War delivers. I'll be harsh and give it 4 out of 5 stars.

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