Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review: Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man's War by John Scalzi, copyright 2005. I read it on my Kindle, using the free e-book version offered at the website as part of the promotion around the start up of the site.


In the Earth of the future humanity has begun to colonize the stars. Unfortunately so have many other species of aliens, and nearly without exception they are all hostile. The colonies operate more or less independently of Earth. The colonial administration has a monopoly on all FTL travel by humans and dictates the rules for who is allowed off planet. Leaving Earth is a one-way trip, and most of the colonists who are permitted to emigrate come from devastatingly poor nations. No one on Earth, including the various governments, knows what is happening out in space as the colonials also control all flow of information into and out of Earth. The only way for people outside the target groups to get make it into space is to volunteer for the Colonial Defense Forces. Only senior citizens are allowed to volunteer, on or about their 65th birthdays, and then must finalize the committment upon reaching 75. Why senior citizens? Well, space is dangerous and old people can be lured into service with the promise of brand new, young bodies. Volunteer for the CDF and get a new lease on life, literally!

John Perry has lost his wife, and is not close to family or friends, so he decided to complete his enlistment. He and many other 75 year olds are quickly whisked off planet by the superior technology of the colonies. Each of the recruits is transplated into new, youthful bodies cloned from their own DNA, with modifications made to turn them into super soldiers. At this point the book goes into detail about the modifications and we readers get to see the recruits go through boot camp. While I was reading this, it all reminded me of the first part from the movie "The Dirty Dozen", where all the "volunteers" are quickly trained as commandos. In a good way.

After training, John and his circle of friends from boot camp receive their assignments and are shipped out to various units and are thrust into combat. It seems the primary method of interaction with alien species is combat, in competition for habitable colony worlds and vital resources. The average lifespan of a new recruit is only a few years, and soon enough John experiences losses. We see everything through John's eyes, and as he doesn't learn much about what's going on, neither do we, until close to the end of the book. As the book progresses John begins to work his way up in rank, from grunt to officer material, and he eventually plays a pivotal role in negociations with an uber-powerful alien species and manages to gain a little respect from them.

My Opinion:

I liked Old Man's War. It's got interesting characters, doing interesting things. Unfortunately they're mostly things I've seen or read before. A lot of the plot feels like scenes or set pieces that are commonly used in military SF or adventure fiction -- the boot camp episode I mentioned above is a major example of this. It's all stitched together well, however.

The bigger problem I had with the book is the setting. And this is a pretty big problem. Much of the draw of science fiction and fantasy is the world building, and it seems to be weak in Old Man's War. I found it hard to buy the idea of the colonies being so technologically superior to the homeworld, and only using Earth as a source for indentured soldiers and easy to control settler populations. I guess I would have been happier had the logistics been hinted at more. If the colonies are constantly at war with more or less every other alien species they encounter, how do they have the space to develop resources they can tap for their war machine? How do they stay competitive in the technological arms race, without a peaceful homeworld population which can support scientific research? Stealing alien tech would only go so far. And the whole idea of warfare being a more profitable means of acquiring planets and resources than cooperation is also hard to buy, especially given how very destructive the warfare depicted in Old Man's War is.

The Roundup:

Okay, so I have some quibbles with the book. I'm glad I read it. I'm glad it was free. I'm intrigued enough with the setting to see if Scalzi has addressed any of my issues in some of the later books. And I'll happily pay for those. I just hope they're available for the Kindle.

Next up: Extraordinary Engines: the Definitive Steampunk Anthology, edited by Nick Gevers.


What other people have to say about Old Man's War:

Stuart Carter at SF Site

Adrienne Martini at Bookslut

John at Grasping for the Wind

Tim Gebhart at Blogcritics

John DeNardo at SF Signal

A review by Russ Allbery

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Why the Republican Party Sucks: Part 2 of an Infinite Part Series

I know I'm not the first to comment on this, but I simply cannot let it go uncommented.

Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, on February 24, 2009:

While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a "magnetic levitation" line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called "volcano monitoring." Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.

For something called "volcano monitoring"? Has Governor Jindal forgotten the 57 Americans who died when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980? Are all monitoring services that keep track of potential natural disasters "lard" in his mind? How much worse would hurricane Katrina have been had there been no warning? Or does he honestly believe that services which monitor potential natural disasters are only justified when they benefit his state?

Or is it more likely that his Republican Party handlers decided to try for a cheap shot, thinking that most Americans don't live near volcanos? Or that volcanic eruptions are so infrequent that they could get in a cheap shot and not make too many waves? Either way, if volcanic eruptions can be considered acts of God, then perhaps the Republican Party has now learned what the Almighty thinks of its recent behavior?

The irony of the Mt. Redoubt situtation is that it's happening Republican Barbie's home state.

This is what happens when a political party develops an unhealthy contempt for science, combined with an unhealthy contempt for the citizenry.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Work in Progress

Newton's Ghosts

Word count as of 3/23/09: 1,995 words.

Work in Progress

I've started writing something. Don't know how long it'll be, but the title so far is Newton's Ghosts.

Word count as of 3/22/09: 1,399.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sir Topham Hatt and Uncle Moneybags

Did you ever notice how the Evil overlord of the Sodor Railway, Sir Topham Hatt, looks just like the Evil monopolist from the game Monopoly, Uncle Moneybags?

Sir Topham Hatt

Uncle Moneybags

Perhaps our avuncular landlord from Atlantic City is merely the British rail baron with a clever mustachioed disguise? Maybe the casinos on Boardwalk are being used to launder monies embezzled from the Sodor Railway? Are the bizarre, anthopomorphic talking trains really part of Hatt's secret police, who quietly disappear Sodorian dissidents to underground cells along Tennessee Avenue. Maybe there's a reason why the railroads are considered some of the most valuable properties in Monopoly, even though the Golden Age of Rail is long past

Maybe Sidereal Jr. and Siderealette spend too much time watching Thomas and His Friends?


Sidereal's First Law of the Culinary Arts (and Sciences!)

Anything will taste good when combined with sufficient amounts of sugar, and deep fat fried. Even poop.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

New Word: whale jail

Whale jail: noun. The circle in Hell reserved for people who shop at Whole Foods and insist on parking their suburban assault vehicles in the parking spaces reserved for fuel efficient, eco-friendly sub-compact cars and hybrids.

In Dante's Inferno, whale jail is lodged in between circle three (the gluttonous) and circle four (the avaricious). Some scholars argue that whale jail is, in fact, an annex of circle eight, bolgia six, wherein lie the hypocrites. However it can be counter-argued that while being shallow and ignorant is functionally equivalent to being a hypocrite, it is not morally equivalent.


Further Conversations with Sidereal Jr.

Completely unassailable logic:

S.: I am a big scary monster looking for a little boy to eat for lunch!!!

S. Jr.: You can't eat me! My nose is full of boogers!


Monday, March 2, 2009

Books I read in February 2009

Books I read in February 2009, in chronological order, with comments, snide, snarky, or otherwise.

In the Court of the Crimson Kings -- S.M. Stirling: 2/1/09 - 2/2/09

Good book, in a retro 30's sort of way.

A Talent for War -- Jack McDevitt: 2/4/09 - 2/6/09

Indiana Jones crossed with The Da Vinci Code, in spaaace!

Firearms -- Roger Pauly: 2/6/09 - 2/8/09

A brief history of the technology used by people to shoot other people. Oh, and to shoot animals too, but not as often.

The Riddle Master of Hed trilogy -- Patricia McKillip: 2/9/09 - 2/15/09

If you are a farm-boy, even a princely farm-boy, and you have three stars emblazoned on your forehead, then beware! People are out to get you!

Old Man's War -- John Scalzi: 2/18/09 - 2/19/09

Getting old sucks, but it's better than the alternative, in spaaace! (to be reviewed soon, read on the Kindle).

The Merchant's War -- Charles Stross: 2/20/09 - 2/23/09

You think your family sucks; these guys will literally go Amber all over your ass, drag you kicking and screaming back for Thanksgiving dinner, and then make you marry your cousin as part of a forced breeding program.

Eight books for the month, not bad considering it's a school month.