Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Each Friday, I intend to highlight a book I’ve recently enjoyed and want to share with you. I figure that a Friday is the best time to do this as you’ll have the whole weekend to really get into it.
A note on the links: they’re affiliate links in some cases, which means that if you click on them and then buy the book, I might get a small commission. In any case the price you pay does not vary, I don’t get to know who bought what, and none of your personal data is shared with me.
And none of the recommendations are paid for: these are all books which I personally have bought, enjoyed and want to share - no-one is asking me to do this.
It’s Friday, and it’s time to recommend another book (or as you’re probably already suspecting) the first in a series again. I’ve read the first three and enjoyed them a great deal, but I’ll just concentrate on this first one as usual.
There’s a sub-genre of Science Fiction which is Military SciFi - usually surprisingly buff men in shiny high-tech armour, bringing Earth Justice to the Aliens. In more recent books it can be surprisingly pneumatic women alongside or instead of the toned men, the Justice can be flawed or a thinly disguised allegory for Imperialism, Xenophobia or another of Humanity’s ills.
Some of these works are remarkably good - and some are clearly written by people who have read a lot of this sort of thing, love the idea of being a Space Marine, and don’t understand that Science Fiction tends to be at its best when it holds up a mirror to humanity.
John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series honestly falls between the two for me. But I still love it.
From the synopsis:
At seventy-five years old, John Perry is after a fresh start - so, naturally, he joins the army. Earth’s military machine can transform elderly recruits, restoring their lost youth. But in return, its Colonial Defence Force demands two years of hazardous service in space. This is how Perry finds himself in a new body, crafted from his original DNA. A genetically enhanced and upgraded new body, ready for battle.
But upgrades alone won’t keep Perry safe. He’ll be fighting for his life on the front line as he defends humanity’s colonies from hostile aliens. He’ll pay the price for his choices, and he’ll discover the universe is even more dangerous than he imagined.
So here’s the setup - humanity has colonised the stars, but not everyone got to go. In fact, if you come from a rich Western nation you are banned from emigrating - presumably because you’re still valuable on Earth. So the protagonist of this book is American, 75 years old and facing a comfortable retirement - but recently widowed. He & his wife had planned to join the military together to enable them to see the stars, before her death from a stroke. He decides to go ahead with his plan, assuming that either the work the army has for him is going to be pretty non-strenuous, or (as everyone believes) there’s a way to reverse ageing. In fact, they’ve cloned him a whole new body - and enhanced with smart blood, a brain implant that allows instant communication and a gun that never needs reloading. He’s stronger, smarter, fitter than ever before - and he has to fight for the next two years, or until he dies; the implication being that the latter is much more likely.
The ‘Old Farts’ as they quickly name themselves fight weird aliens, zoom around the galaxy and have a lot of sex. So far, so Military SciFi.
If you’ve read Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein then you’re familiar with the idea of a Military SciFi book. If you’ve seen the movie directed by Paul Verhoeven, you’re familiar with using SciFi to push a message about humanity (in this case, Fascism is bad). Ironically the original book essentially read as a near-apology for fascism, being written at a time when America was struggling for identity after the Second World War and more literally against the threat of communism. The ‘bugs’ in that novel were a very thinly disguised metaphor for the ‘Red Menace’ and the only way to serve your society (or in fact even be a part of it) was to fight them to the death, damn the consequences.
Old Man’s War is not as overt in its politics - but it is also a product of its time (2005). The Colonial Defence Force are viewed by the colonists they protect as unable to do wrong, protecting humanity from the violent aliens we share the universe with. As we quickly come to realise though, this only works if a group of people give up what it is to be human, both physically and even morally - and if you’re no longer human then who are you fighting for?
This book reaches a long way - examining what it is to be human, what sins can be justified in the name of peace, and a number of other traditional territories where SciFi likes to weigh in. This is the first published novel by John Scalzi and it shows sometimes - the characters aren’t especially well rounded and have a tendency to info-dump, for example. (To put this in perspective: I love *Arthur C. Clarke* for his wonderful imagination and ideas - and he could never write two characters such that I could tell them apart. Scalzi’s better than that!) These are common flaws in even the best SciFi and his later books are clearly all the better for the lessons he learned from this one. This book grabbed me for the right reasons; it’s a clever idea, done well, with only some small flaws that didn’t really distract me from the universe unfolding before me.
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