Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Rating 8.9/10
A lot of fun, a science fiction novel that doesn't require you to think too hard about the science.

Old Man's War by John Scalzi is the first book in a series of sci-fi novels set in the far future exploring humanity’s first steps towards joining a galactic community. It has action, adventure, unique science, very unique aliens, politics, witty dialogue, and all with just a touch of romance / lust.

The story follows John Perry, 75 year old Earthling and brand new Colonial Defence Force recruit. His wife has been dead for a while now, he has said goodbye to the rest of his family and friends, and he is ready to leave Earth to go fight aliens on the other side of the universe. There is a lot speculation as to why the CDF only recruits people who reach 75 years of age; do they refurbish your body so that your experienced brain can make better use of it, is it population and resource control, or will you just be cannon fodder? Well... its probably a combination of the three, and in short time John and his new friends are undergoing intensive infantry training in preparation for skirmishes with bold aliens all over the universe.

One of the things I think Scalzi communicates well in this story is the sense of scale. This universe feels enormous, the beanstalk is impressive, the space stations seem enormous, and the space battles feel so panoramic. The science is also made to seem very impressive and out of reach, with Scalzi being deliberately vague as to the specifics of how things work, but very detailed in how valuable the outputs of these sciency things are. In contrast to that, Scalzi is able to zoom in tightly on characters for ground skirmishes, making everything seems very small and close with little room to move.

John Perry is a good guy, an every man, a born fighter and a natural leader. He makes friends easily, he commands respect wherever he goes, and his tactical nous on the battlefield is very strong. We get to share the surprises and wonders in the story with him, we share in his losses through the story, and we most definitely share in his wins through the story. That said, John seems to be just a little too perfect, just a little too quick with the answer to a deadly problem, and just a little too natural a leader. He always makes the right decisions, he always overcomes improbably odds, and he is always left standing at the end whilst people are dying around him. I liked him, but I just wish he was a little more fallible.

The strength of any Scalzi novel, for me, is the dialogue, and Old Man's War is no different. Scalzi puts a lot of time and effort into crafting personalities, and the banter between personalities is quick, witty, and often time profound. Whether its talking about calorie-laden breakfasts or trying to be diplomatic with an aggressive alien species, the dialogue is never in the backseat position and I think that's a good thing. I know I laughed out loud on more than one occasion.

Old Man's War is a lot of fun, a science fiction novel that doesn't require you to think too hard about the science. This is probably a weak point for those who prefer their science fiction to be very accurate and specific, but for those looking to get into the genre I think this would be a very good starter book.

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Old Man's War reader reviews

from Israel

1-stars

I was recommended this book by the owner of my favorite book store. He was so confident I would like it that he told me I would get a full refund should I return it. I really enjoy sci-fi, especially when the world building and the concepts are original and intriguing. Needless to say, I opened the first page with big expectations… I hated the book. I really did. I got a headache from rolling my eyeballs so much throughout the ordeal. When I read the positive reviews this book has received, and the fact that the series are a huge success, I was even more frustrated. It also left me perplexed. Am I missing something? Was I too harsh? But, alas, I stand my ground. Here’s what I think about Old Man’s War: I’ll start with the characters: They are one dimensional. They are generic copies of each other. Every single character - old woman, military officer, or elite soldier - is extremely nice, harmless, and constantly grinning, smiling or making bad jokes in hope that their audience might like them. The old people don't talk like old people. The military people don't talk like military people. What’s most annoying is that they criticize themselves right before we manage to do so, like a sort of vaccine against reader’s derision – calling themselves for example “Old Farts” and “inhumane monsters”. I agree. Our heroes in this novel are boring old farts and senseless inhumane monsters, and they don’t do much to change that. The heroes have neither inner conflicts no moral dissonance that can tell us something about their motives, that can impact the plot or at least give us some depth so that we don’t bang our faces against the pool bottom every time we are deceived into believing we have encountered some form of depth. The antagonists are even worse, starting with the fact that there is no actual enemy, only rivals. Our human heroes, who are colonizers, are fighting various alien species, who are also colonizers, none of which impose a threat on humanity or even on our colonizers’ endeavors. The “enemies” in this story have no names, no motives, and are deprived of shape since the writer hardly makes any effort in describing their physical appearance. If they are the antagonists in this story, so is the iceberg in Titanic. And I daresay the iceberg has more character, and certainly more depth. Now, speaking of character, this brings me to the novel’s biggest disappointment when it comes to character building – our spectacularly generic protagonist. John Perry is best described as mediocre. He is the very definition of mediocre, and could also serve as a synonym for generic, blank, and one dimensional. I don’t mean to say he is mediocre in the good sense – human, with flaws and fears and weaknesses. He hardly has any of these, and yet he is so relatable and moldable that you're never once surprised by his decisions, inspired by his actions or sorry for his misfortunes. Even his profession is so amorphic it tells us nothing about him - a marketing writer... so relatable. So boring. I dare anyone who has read the book to describe John Perry to a satisfactory level. When it comes to appearance, we only know he is not the prettiest compared to his very handsome friends, which, come to think of it, really doesn’t tell us anything about his appearance. We have no idea what he believes in, what he is afraid of, what drives him. There's nothing wrong with him, but there's nothing quite right about him, and you get that impression from the very start… The book begins with him applying for the Colonial Defense Forces. Why? Is he running away from his past? Is he dying? Does he have a mysterious scheme that we will later on find out about? Is humanity in danger? No. He is just an old fart who is bored and wants a bit of excitement. Later on, as I look for the faintest sign of depth in this character, he suddenly starts quoting the bible to another generic old fart. Now you think you’ve finally discovered something about the character. “He's religious! How cute! Maybe that will influence his personality. Maybe that will impact his decision-making throughout the book.” But no. He is not religious. He simply grew up in a Christian town. His relationship with his son (whom he never mentions again once having left Earth) “had its ups and downs”. Wow. He loved his wife despite the fact that they both cheated on each other and lied to each other about their affairs... WOW. So, are you a man of honor? No. Are you an asshole? No. Just be anything. I'm ok with you being the biggest asshole on earth. Just give me something. Infact, the only asshole in the story is John's computer partner whom he names Asshole (which really tells you a lot about the writer’s sophisticated humor). Out of the two potential non-robo assholes who could have spiced things up for us (the way Boromir does in Fellowship of the Ring), one dies of a heart attack early on and the other proves to have a soft spot for our hero despite moments ago making a clear declaration that would annul any “badass-turning-soft” twist. He literally said, “I am a badass and will not go soft.” Then he goes soft. Throughout the book our protagonist fights aliens and climbs up the ranks through heroic feats. Why is he fighting? For what? For whom? We don't know. Not even our dear John (by the way, is there a more generic name than John?) knows why. The heroic feats are so smoothly integrated in the action sequences that we are deprived of any decision-making, thought processes, or hesitation he might have. We don't know what makes him special. We don’t know what makes him capable. He makes no mistakes. He has no screw ups. And if you would like to argue that crashing down in a spaceship and losing a leg, a jaw, and three toes is a screw up, explain to me just how a few pages later he is fully recovered and promoted to a lieutenant. Talk about paying the price for your decisions… Sclazi tries to show us the antagonist is a hero who has saved his crew by being quick enough and bold enough to make an unauthorized decision. A page later his entire crew is dead except for him. Nevertheless, he gets to live on and gets promoted for the same act of boldness and quick thinking. At the very end our hero gets promoted yet again for generic things generic heroes do just as he realizes he might never see again the potential second love of his life, and he throws us this fart bomb - turns out the promotion was more dramatic to him than never seeing this woman again. Because, and I quote, “there’s not much to not seeing someone.” What in the world does that mean?? Oh my God... Our protagonist doesn't evolve. He has no foundations to start with nor a solid plotline to help him grow. He is not even human. He is a genetically modified soldier that can regrow any organ or limb... Which brings us to the next point, let’s talk about the plotline. There is no plotline. To put it very simply, there is no imminent danger that requires our hero’s intervention, but rather our hero’s unjustified intervention that puts him in pointless danger. The only cool thing was the concept of old people joining an intergalactic human army and gaining cool abilities, but past page 70 the magic has happened and in the least clever way - old minds are placed in young bodies, so that the title becomes irrelevant very early on, luring us into another 250 pages of (young) "men" (superhumans with green skin with cat eyes) fighting aliens. To what purpose? None. What is John fighting for? Can’t say for sure. Where is the plotline leading us? TO a climax that involves another generic alien race (that was so poorly described to us we can solely rely on our Star Wars repertoire and our imagination), that was casually introduced halfway through the book as just another rival that is in fact clearly stated as weaker than the human galactic forces. TO a battle over a planet that is mentioned as a colonized planet with no actual significance to the human race, with a small population despite its promising conditions. So why is this the very climax of the book? Characters we barely know are fighting nobodies we can barely visualize over a planet we don't really care about. The funny thing is, this planet seems very important to our apparent archrivals, but not to our heroes, which really reflects on the whole book’s lack of depth - the CDF’s motive is to colonize and massacre the opposition. The main character's motive is... I'm not sure. That he's a soldier? That he... ugh I’ve no idea. At no point is humanity in danger. At no point are the hero's principles jeopardized or put to test. At no point is the enemy or the overall goal (or point of this book) made clear. We are just moving from planet to planet, killing pretty randomly aliens for pretty trivial reasons and climbing up the ranks. Even signs of moral equity hinted throughout the story which lead us to believe that there might be an inner conflict developing in our protagonist that would lead to a standoff between the character and the CDF leaves us disappointed as we realize these signs lead nowhere. Very early on I thought the morality issues brought up would somehow reflect contemporary imperialism controversies, mainly regarding the USA. But no. No political statement either. The controversies are mentioned as casually as they are forgotten to create a sense of depth. An illusion. Speaking of illusions. Tension is one of them in this novel. Every time signs of tension show up, they are resolved in the next chapter. Your wife might be alive? Well no need to wait, just read on and in two pages you'll have the answer. Is there a traitor? Hmmm, interesting... Two pages later - nop. Seriously, even when there's a hint to a potentially cool plot twist where we learn that the glorious CDF have a traitor in their ranks, the next page we are disappointed once again. There is no traitor. The enemy simply has better tech. How exciting. The only character that exercised certain judgement and hinted at a more complex moral storyline was a less generic old fart that appeared for a chapter, spoke against blindly killing aliens and promoted trying to negotiate and learn from them instead, was scolded by the characters we are urged to like and believe in with words like "what you know or what you think you know out here means shit to me and to everyone else,", "you don’t know anything", was then ruthlessly killed by the very aliens he was trying to peacefully communicate with (which earned him the insult "asshole" by one of our beloved characters) in an almost comical scene, and was completely forgotten as we moved on to more alien massacres. I would have even applauded at a definite conclusion that the aliens are so evil we can't negotiate with them, but even that option is denied when our writer so generously justifies the aliens' actions. So if the aliens have their own egoistic motives, and the CDF has its own egoistic motives, and our hero has no motives at all, than what are we doing here?? We have been invited to an original futuristic amusement park only to find ourselves in a house of wax. Low quality wax figures, because such is the quality of prose. The writing is simple, boring, mechanical, awkward, straightforward… as if words were expensive and the author was on a tight budget - the minimal, cheapest vocabulary is used to describe a situation. It is used as a tool rather than art. It is pretty safe to assume the author would have preferred to write a script for an overbudget Hollywood blockbuster than actually indulge in the art of writing. The way I see it, he read Robert A. Heinlein when he was a teenager. He got inspired. He wrote Old Man’s War. All during his teenage years. This book relies solely on its initial concept which is interesting though poorly developed and on the gimmicks of generic sci-fi. I can promise you I will not be reading the next two books in the trilogy.

5/10 from 2 reviews

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