I thought I had talked about John Scalzi's Old Man's War before but if I have I can't find it in my own archives. So it makes some sense to talk about OMW before venturing on to talk about The Ghost Brigades or The Last Colony. As always, I'll try to stay relatively spoiler-free, although that's going to be trickier in the discussing the later books. But today's topic is Old Man's War, so we don't have to worry about spoiling any prequels (and it's easier to avoid spoiling sequels). Onward!
The first thing to get out of the way is the Heinlein discussion. Scalzi has frequently described how he looked at the sci-fi section of bookstores and determined that military fiction was selling so he set out to write military SF. And honestly once you've made that decision taking Heinlein as your North Star guide for the excursion makes a lot of sense to me. Scalzi went ahead and took it a step further and went for an outright homage - and he really did a good job of it. It's a little hard to explain why or how, but the universe of Old Man's War just feels like a Heinlein story. It's been years since the last time I read Heinlein so it's difficult for me to trace the overt influences, but there's no doubt it's there. This is not some sort of subtle thing where you'd have to be a True Fan™ to notice, it's very overt. Some people have bashed him for this but I don't really see the point. Are we going to carve out a whole range of fiction concepts and styles and say "These are forever the sacred hunting grounds of Heinlein and thou shalt not trangress!"? I kind of doubt Heinlein would have wanted that. So the question becomes one of whether the homage is well done and whether it works. I think it does.
Old Man's War tells the story of John Perry. In this universe Earth is "protected" by an interstellar government that runs humanities colonies and controls spaceflight. Colonies are founded primarily from developing countries. There's only one way for first world citizens to go to space: to enlist in the Colonial Union's army. The quirk is that the CU only enlists 75 year olds. The rumor is that the CU makes them young again with some technology that reverses aging, but nobody on Earth knows the truth. Once you've enlisted with the CU you never return to Earth again.
This is an interesting premise to begin with. The world Scalzi has created is interesting and not crazily improbable. From a narrative perspective it's a neat trick because Perry's POV knows practically nothing about the universe at large, so we get to ride along through his introduction to the Colonial Union. This leads to a tricky point - there's a fair amount of info-dumping in Old Man's War but it makes sense because it goes in the form of orientation briefing or lectures that Perry gets as he goes through what amounts to Basic Training. I noticed it and it got close, but didn't cross over the line to bother me. It's a close edge though and I think it's a good point to remember because I'll talk more about when I get to The Ghost Brigades.
Basic Training ends soon enough and then it's onto battles. And hoo boy there are lotsa battles! Perry ends up in the infantry and he fights a dizzying series of aliens, each one stranger than the last. I have to admit that this is probably my biggest beef with Old Man's War as a standalone book - there's a lot of stuff introduced throughout this part that raises questions. Questions that aren't just of the Comic-Book-Guy/Trekkie fanboy quibbles, but serious "But wait, if that's true that does't that imply something is very wrong over here?" questions about how the Colonial Union works.
It's a little annoying that the characters seem to take a lot of things at face value, things that I think a bright group of experienced people would question. There are some oblique references where the characters ponder things, but it's pretty thin. There's some justification in that the characters are all just infantry grunts so they have limited access to information, but they don't even seem to just sit around having bull sessions about what they do or don't know. This doesn't ring true to me, especially since they have nothing to do onboard a ship but sit around and jabber.
I talked about Scalzi's writing style when I wrote about The Androids Dream and that pretty much covers Old Man's War as well. It's a fun book to read and it's clear and concise. This universe is considerably darker and more violent than the one in The Android's Dream, but the prose style itself reads easily. This would be a great book to read on vacation or on a plane or some other setting where you have several hours to read. I don't feel it's a "Oh I can't put it down until I find out what happens" book, but it's also not a "My brain is full, I must stop reading" book either.
It's also a good read for people who aren't sci-fi nuts. There's nothing in it that assumes familiarity with other genre canon. The Heinlein homage is definitely present, but it's not like you'd need to read Heinlein before being exposed to Old Man's War. There aren't even really in-jokes or references that you'd miss if this was your first genre book. To an old hand it is reminiscent of Heinlein - but perhaps that's a good thing in that Heinlein was in his time a very accessible writer that wrote stories that I think anyone could enjoy. (Well, except for dirty hippies. They'd probably object to the pro-military overtones. Maybe they could stick with the later Heinlein's where there's a lot of free love flowin' around.) Nowadays Heinlein is a bit dated - his men are men and they are fast with the slide rule. Scalzi makes a good run at updating the style to include genetic engineering and computers.
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