Monday, January 21, 2008

Book Review: Old Man's War

It's actually been awhile since I read any new science fiction. Too much nonfiction out there to captivate my attention. However, I work with a fellow SF geek who recommended John Scalzi's Old Man's War, so I thought I'd give it a shot. I was pleasantly surprised.

Old Man's War is a future war story along the lines of Heinlein's Starship Troopers, Haldeman's The Forever War or Forever Peace, or John Steakley's Armor, with a much closer resemblance to Heinlein's work, just slightly more advanced technology. So what makes Scalzi's work different?

The future Earth milieu is typical space opera: interstellar empires, strange aliens, and spacecraft zooming between the stars at faster-than-light speeds. You can almost hear John Williams music playing in the background as you read some of the combat sequences. In fact, now that I think of it, Old Man's War, if made into a movie that was true to the soul of the book, would be one hell of a film, and would give the moviegoing public a much better idea of what Starship Troopers could have been.

Earth itself appears not much different from life in America today, though it's hard to tell. Scalzi doesn't spend much time dwelling on what life on Earth is like, except to mention that there was a war in India in which the U.S. used nuclear weapons to win. Overpopulation problems continue in India, however, so settlers from India are given precedence at interstellar colonies. Americans can go into space, but only when they reach 75 years of age.

So how does the main character, 75-year-old John Perry, become a member of Earth's Colonial Defense Forces (CDF? One of the most interesting parts of the book--how this future transforms old people into soldiers--is sufficiently different and intriguing that I won't provide any spoilers by giving it away. I can tell you that the future soldiers have nanotechnology and computers embedded in their bodies, seriously smart weapons, and remarkable physical endurance and abilities, and that still doesn't quite cover it. However, there is a strategic reason why it makes sense to use the wisdom and experience of older people.

One thing that's interesting about this book is the slow windup to actual combat. You're on page 115 before Perry and his crew of old people are into boot camp, and page 150 before Perry is put into actual combat. This slow progression from sad old man to recruit to fighting soldier is what make Old Man's War so similar to Starship Troopers. However, Scalzi is not quite as heavy-handed in some of his lectures. For those of you who have had grandparents who can spin a good yarn (I had a couple), you might recognize this pattern. The author/protagonist is in no hurry to tell his story, but once it gets going, the military SF fan will not be disappointed. Scalzi also has one of those deceptively effortless styles that makes his work easy to read. However, a caveat up front if anyone reading this takes these reviews seriously: the language is of the peppery variety.

Scalzi leaves enough clues and open hints for a sequel, and indeed has one on the market: The Ghost Brigades, which I'll have to get back to after I move through some more books on my "to do" list. Old Man's War gets four stars.


Speaking of the to-do list, my next book is The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, which is just over 800 pages, so it might be awhile before I get down to another review. Of course if I don't like the book, I won't make it all the way through, and I'll 'fess up to it. After that I've got The Historian on my list, and then I'll make another turn back over to nonfiction. One discouraging thing I'm discovering is that most of the books I want to read are not available at the local library or Barnes & Noble. I like "grazing" through the store: the only "shopping gene" I accept. Oh well, there's always Amazon.

Off to shower, read, and enjoy the day off.

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