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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Review: Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man’s War – John Scalzi (Published 2005)
Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Military
Completed: September 11 2010

Of all the novels I have read this year, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is the book that most reminded me of a movie. The story itself is cinematic in terms of scope and the images the author conjures, but it was the effortless nature of reading it that most recalled the movie-going experience. It is a fairly short novel, but it was definitely my fastest read this year.

I think I am fortunate in that I can review the book purely on its own merits. I can’t comment on its place in the tradition of Heinlein having never read Starship Troopers (or any Heinlein at all, to my shame). My reading of science fiction in general has been quite limited, so Scalzi’s ideas are mostly new to me and more intriguing for it. For example, the development of the skip drive, for faster than light travel (of a sort), was pretty mind bending.

Of course the central premise of Old Man’s War is equally thought-provoking. In Scalzi’s setting, humankind has begun to colonise outside our own galaxy and unsurprisingly met the resistance of other sentient species with varying levels of technology. The soldiers who are fighting to protect human expansion are men and women who join the military at age 75, the theory being that their life experience makes them superior soldiers. Through the eyes of central character John Perry we see the inevitable process of regeneration and training, before the old folks head into battle.

At first Scalzi seems utterly neutral when it comes to the cloning and regeneration of the aging soldiers. As the story progresses however he begins to raise questions of identity and self with regard to this area of science, concluding that people are much more than their DNA. Memory is particularly significant for Scalzi’s characters, most of whom have lengthy life experience. However, these issues aren’t strictly couched in moral terms. Indeed the character who has the most cause to be angered by these processes seems quite ambivalent towards them.

Moral ambiguity is practically a theme of the story, in terms of both the science discussed above and when Scalzi looks at the expansion of human civilization in a way that is necessarily at the expense of other species. Technological development and pure survival seem to be the guiding principles for the humans in Old Man’s War, and the author quite deliberately avoids judging the actions of his characters, from sexual promiscuity to killing.

Old Man’s War gets 4 stars. It isn’t literary genius, it’s very commercial, but it is a very engaging and entertaining read. For fans of epic fantasy like myself it may feel lightweight (at barely over 300 pages), but this is not at all to the detriment of the story. The best compliment I can give to the book is that although I’m not a massive fan of science fiction I will definitely be reading more Scalzi in the future.

Read it – to enjoy a fast-paced story of space exploration and the future of humanity, even if you don’t normally like sci-fi
Don’t read it – if you just refuse to read sci-fi, otherwise there’s no reason not to

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