John Scalzi – Old Man’s War

John Scalzi can do no wrong. Or so it seems when one listens to the prevalent opinion on his books on the internet. Having read only one of his novels so far, I see the appeal. But I don’t think Old Man’s War merits the hype it has received. Its obvious flaws seem less important to most people than they were to me. I liked this book a lot. I just don’t think it’s that much better than many others.

by John Scalzi:

published: Tor Books, 2005
ISBN: 0765348276
pages: 314
copy: paperback
series: Old Man’s War #1

my rating: 7/10

first sentence: I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce–and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.  Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.  John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine–and what he will become is far stranger.

John Scalzi leads his readers, and his protagonist alike, into this world slowly, taking one step at a time. Having everything explained to you – how the army works, why you join when you’re 75 years old, and especially how a bunch of old people is going to be fighting a war – was never boring or lecturing. It was a lot of fun. John Perry is as clueless as we are and has to learn things and take them in bit by bit. His reactions and the fact that he was just so likable made this really interesting. We learn about some awesome technology and why the Colonial Defense Force keeps everything secret from Earth’s inhabitants.

I said I liked John Perry. And I did. I also liked most of the other characters, Perry’s friends who call jokingly themselves  the “Old Farts”. But it was with these quippy, fun friends that I had my biggest problems. They are all stand-ins for certain pieces of information Scalzi needs to bring across. One of them just happens to be a physicist who can explain one thing or another that needs explaning. One of the ladies seems to be there simply to give Perry a girl to sleep with, once all their bodies have been rejuvinated. That said, this was probably one of the best scenes in the book. Hey, what would you do if you get turned from 75 to 25 years old in a matter of minutes and suddenly all the elderly ladies around you are hot babes?
Sadly, once the actual fighting starts for Perry and his friends, they seem to be there simply to show how gruesome war is and in how many different ways a person can die in this particular interstellar conflict. Since they were kept so vague and flat, I didn’t really feel much when some of them did die – and that can’t be the point of a war story, can it?

Now that the negative is out of the way: This book is just pure fun. It has almost everything you can wish for in a good novel. Aliens, brawling, space ships, physics and mathematics that remind you dreadfully of your school days and a suspenseful story with a nicely built story arc. Military sci-fi gets a bed reputation for “glorifying war/the military” but I didn’t feel that here at all. The reason for this Old Man’s War and the power of the military are discussed in the novel and I found the reasons understandable. Scalzi didn’t just show us how positive the new recruits take their situation but also lets us see other points of view.

I understand why this book made it to a lot of best of lists. It is a fun military science fiction novel with some great ideas (I loved the personal computers and the original names some characters gave them). The story is well-rounded and could be read as a standalone as well as part of the series. You can tell that Scalzi’s world has a lot more to offer and personally, I look forward to The Ghost Brigades.

Was this a good book? Definitely. Was it overwhelmingly awe-inspiring? No. But I’ll be back for the next one and hope to see some of that Scalzi-magic that everybody seems to go on about.

THE GOOD: Fast-paced, great science fictional ideas. Not a moment of boredom. At times quite hilarious.
THE BAD: Except for the protagonist, very flat characters. Their fates left me emotionally blank.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended for people new to science fiction. It’s quite the adventure and eases you into a world of spaceships and interstellar warfare.

RATING: 7/10 Very good book

The Old Man’s War series:

  1. Old Man’s War
  2. The Ghost Brigades
  3. The Last Colony
  4. Zoe’s Tale

Other reviewers:

2 thoughts on “John Scalzi – Old Man’s War

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