Cannonball Read V: Old Man's War by John Scalzi
Profile: Science Fiction, Space Opera, Military
Summary: From the back cover, "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 strange
After Action Report: I've resisted reading this book for a very long time. The reviews were just too universally good, and I've been burned that way before. But after hearing Scalzi interviewed on NPR about his new book, Red Shirts, I finally started wondering what all the fuss was about. And for once, I wasn't disappointed. Old Man's War is a tremendous novel in an understated package that handles the horrors of war and the wonders of the final frontier with equal aplomb. It approaches its subject matter with the correct mix of humility, awe and confidence to tie the reader to the plight of the cast, and even this fictional version of the human race.
Old Man's War is narrated in first person perspective by John Perry, an aging ad copy writer. He and his wife Kathy decided to get a second lease on life by joining the Colonial Defense Force. But Kathy died before their number was up, so John is on his own as he enlists and becomes a part of humanity's first line of defense. Scalzi's vision of the future has humanity expanding colonially into the stars, while Earth remains isolated. But the galaxy is not empty and many other species desire the same resources we need. Competition for planets and systems is fierce and humanity isn't the big kid on the block.
I have to dance around some of the spoiler reveals here, so I'll just say that John becomes a solider for the CDF and proves to be surprisingly adept at the strategy and mechanics of warfare. He and his friends are scattered to various fronts to defend human colonies and claim new territory for their species. This is where the core of the book really begins. We experience the horrors of this interstellar war through John's eyes. He provides the somewhat detached perspective of someone who has seen a lot of life and in some ways has given up on himself. Not in a suicidal way, but as a man who, despite having lost a lot, still seeks something to keep him involved in the world.
The most moving moments of the book are when John relates the deaths of his friends in the service. Even through Scalzi's acerbic prose, the sadness of an old man is palpable. While it isn't explicitly stated in the book, I think that this aspect of old age, that desire to maintain connections in the world, is one of the reasons these men and women are chosen to defend the colonies. Those bonds are also a source of the audience's connection to the rest of the cast. We care about these people because John cares about them.
But John's dry narration works against the book too. John's inexplicable gift for tactics starts to make him into an idealized character, a 'Mary-sue' to use the colloquialism. Combine his superhuman traits with his detached personality and he suddenly seems like he is above the conflicts around him, just walking along the surface of a much deeper story that could have been told. Even his rash actions, driven by his desire to save his friends, work out stupidly well, invalidating his self-sacrificing nature. He is just barely self-effacing enough to avoid being completely unlikable, but the personality problems really divorce the reader from the sense that these soldiers are overcoming staggering odds.
There is still a lot more to recommend Old Man's War than there is to criticize. The same writing style that isolates John makes for great battle narration and descriptive text. Combat is handled extremely well and the book clips along at a fantastic pace. Both the writing and the plot pacing keep the pages turning all the way through the epilogue. And there's enough questions unanswered to make you really crave the next book in the sequence, without Scalzi explicitly setting up a sequel or really even hinting at it. If there hadn't been a preview in the back of my copy, I wouldn't have known a sequel existed. As someone who spends an inordinate amount of his time reading epic fantasy series, I really appreciate it when the author doesn't hit me over the head with the next book.
Reviewing a good book that the general audience already accepts as good is a bit of an exercise in futility. But if you're one of those people who really dislikes following the crowd's book advice, please believe me when I say that I'm one of those people too and Old Man's War is definitely a great read.
This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it.
For more of Fofo's reviews, check out his blog, Deconstructive Criticism.
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