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Sunday, April 1, 2007

Old Man's War

Old Man's War
John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction
ISBN-10: 0765348276

This one was a loaner from PoeGhostal, who, much like me, recently has made the transition from being an avid fantasy reader to being on a sci-fi kick. I’m not sure what caused me to make the transition; for some reason lately, I’ve just been more in a space and starships mood, rather than a sword-and-sorcery mood. Of course, I still have piles of fantasy that I want to get through, most notably a bunch of REH’s works. But I digress.

Old Man’s War is military science fiction in the tradition of Starship Troopers, and those familiar with Heinlein’s work will find a lot of basic similarities in the plot; a man from Earth decides to join up with the Space Armed Forces, and goes off to fight aliens and discover what war is really about. There’s cool technology, clever tactics, and a fair amount of musing about life by the narrator in question.

By that description, I’m making Old Man’s War seem like a cheap knock-off of Starship Troopers, and it’s really not. It is its own story, quite distinct, and with some seriously notable differences. Perhaps the most notable being the main character, John Perry, who is not the callow youth that Juan Rico is, but instead, is a seventy-five year old man who decides to sign up for the Colonial Defense Forces because he’s got nothing left to lose. He does this without having the faintest idea of WHAT is going to happen to him…the contact between the colonies and Earth is virtually non-existent. It’s an interesting set up, and one of several interesting ideas that Scalzi has throughout the book. Actually, that’s unfair. Scalzi has a lot of interesting ideas, particularly in the realm of technology, and in terms of alien cultures.

The writing itself is solid, if not mind-blowing. The book moves along at a pretty good clip, and while Scalzi does occasionally dive into obligatory technobabble to explain some piece of technology, it is the sort of technobabble that even a non-scientist like myself can follow (one of the things that keeps me away from many sci-fi books is the detailed technological explanations). Most of the characters are pretty interesting, though a few them feel a little flat/forced (the drill sergeant bugs me, for a variety of reasons I wont’ get into here). I’m really not a fan of the presence of Jane Sagan, but it’s hard to get into WHY without getting to heavily into the plot. I’ll just say that I thought her presence and arc were largely unnecessary, and feel that something more interesting could have been done with the plot there.

I think I’m making this book sound worse than I think it is, so let me back up a step. This is a good book. Really. It’s fast-paced military science fiction, somewhat reminiscent of Heinlein, and honestly, a little reminiscent of Zahn. The main character is fun, the humor is good, and the action works very well. The aliens are neat, and alien, which is a welcome change from the “humans with stuff on their foreheads” syndrome, or from the “we’ll tell you nothing at all about them” method of dealing with aliens. The good stuff, however, is in some the characters and the ideas. The plot itself is not horrible, but it’s nothing to write home about either. The strength of the writing is definitely more in Perry and his interactions with a strange and hostile cosmos that it is in the intrigue and plot twists. The work is also somewhat less introspective than Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which is either a good or bad thing, depending on what you’re looking for. Perry does do a bit of soul-searching, mind you, but the book does not seem to set out to make a point in the same way that Heinlein does.

At the end of the day, this is good, fun, solid, military science fiction. If you want to read about a bunch of people who explore the universe, meet strange new people, and blow them up, this is a pretty good place to start.