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 tor.com 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.
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.
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