12 January 2015

Books: Old Man's War By John Scalzi (2005)

John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife's grave. Then he 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.

I've read only two other books by John Scalzi, both skewed towards his snarky humor that I adore so much. And while Old Man's War (and the authors 2005 debut) has a lot of humor (especially in the first 100 pages or so), the rest of the novel -more or less- is a space war opera in the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers. But I don't think that Scalzi is recycling Heinlein, but exploring new ideas that even the classic author may not even considered, like what it really means to be human when you've been regenerated (for lack of a better word) into a killing machine designed for one purpose: kill before being killed. 

Perry, like any good protagonist, is the reader. And through John, Scalzi can open a debate on the human condition and war. One the biggest questions that comes up is why the CDF does not try more diplomatic solutions when dealing with alien species than coming in, a guns ablazin'. 

Of course, we have many cliches of military here, the hardin' commanders who use colorful metaphors and fear to break in new recruits. There is also a self-awareness to the book, as Scalzi has the characters point out they are stereotypes we've seen many times over in real life and war fiction. But there is a heart to this tale, a lot of humor (even if Scalzi turns it down as the book progresses) and a lot of techno-babble. This was also the first book in a series, which means I'll probably have to read the others. 

I enjoyed the book, despite not being a huge fan of this sub-genre in science fiction -the military fiction. Perhaps, though, I enjoyed it because I like Scalzi's style, his sense of humor and his self-depricating ways. 

I know SyFy is working on an adaptation of this book into a TV series. Much like The Expanse series, I'm hoping for a workable translation that keeps the themes (politics, war, human condition) in place and not watered down for the masses who just want simple stories with a lot of violence and little in the way of social commentary -which has always been science fiction's bread and butter. 

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