Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Published by Tor; Hardcover. ISBN 0-765-30940-8
List Price: $23.95 ($33.95 Canada)
This review contains spoilers.
Good Lord in Heaven, I think my “favorite sci-fi authors list” just got another entry. OMW, weighing in at a svelte 316 pages of text, is the first book I’ve read since Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky that was literally so compelling that I stayed up to finish it. In the current market where so many hardcover books are the literary equivalent of marathons, OMW is the biathlon: it sticks together two unlikely subjects (military sci-fi and old people) and drops them in the snowy wastes of freshman novels. The result is a tightly written story that gives the reader a lot of action to enjoy, surprises to savor, and implications to ponder long after the book is placed on its shelf.
The plot is fairly simple: John Perry is a widower. On his seventy-fifth birthday he heads into the big town of Greenville to finish the process of signing up for the Colonial Defense Forces, a process he started with his wife ten years before. Not much is known about the CDF or their parent organization, the Colonial Union; they control all travel off-planet, they control the colonization of new planets, and they (through the CDF) provide military support for their colonies. There are aliens out there and they, too, want colonies; there are constant fights over territory. CDF recruits are declared legally dead on Earth and can never go back; for this reason they only recruit elderly people. We follow along with John Perry from his last graveside visit with his wife, through the recruiting office, into space, through boot camp, and into memorable battles in various star systems. Along the way, we learn more about the CDF, humanity’s somewhat precarious situation, John Perry, and ultimately ourselves.
In any normal army, recruiting 75 year-olds is a great way to ensure you’re going to get your asses kicked. The CDF is quite smart about a lot of things, so finding out the truth behind the rumors of age rejuvenation treatments is the first major secret of the book. In order to set us up for the proper impact of this reveleation, Scalzi has to do a bit of infodumping. Unlike most rookie writers, he does a damn fine job of showing us his world, not telling us. We get quite a lot of information about the relationship between the CDF and the Earth in the recruiting office as Perry is completing his enlistment; Scalzi intersperses the actual text of the agreement with relevant commentary. His chatty, personable style keeps it moving and presents the salient points without belaboring them; Scalzi does the reader the courtesy of assuming they will be smart enough to grasp the implications of what they’ve just read and start to wonder about the the clone bodies of those who fail to follow through on their enlistment or who die before they reach this point (like Perry’s roommate).
The secret of the CDF rejuvenation treatment is also simple: there is none. Instead, the CDF has spent the past ten years force-growing a genetically engineered clone, into which they will transfer their recruits’ consciousness (thanks to some advanced technology). Again, Perry learns what’s going on about a second before we do and we have as little prior preparation as he received. Even though I’d already listed cloning as a possible option, Scalzi’s treatment of it was deft enough to leave me nodding in appreciation of Perry’s surprise. This scene provides what I think is one of the finest bits of writing in the book:
“Wait,” I said. “I forgot something.” I walked over to my old body again, still in the creche. I looked over to Dr. Russell and pointed to the door. “I need to unlock this,” I said. Dr. Russell nodded. I unlocked it, opened it, and took my old body’s left hand. On the ring finger was a simple gold band. I slipped it off and slipped it on my ring finger. Then I cupped my old face with my new hands.
“Thank you,” I said to me. “Thank you for everything.”
Wow. As a reader, I live for those passages.
Ironically, Perry’s boot camp experience was the only scene that strained my sense of disbelief. The CDF drill instructors have genuine reason to be the sons of bitches that everbody expects drill instructors to be, and Master Sergeant Antonio Ruiz is no exception. Although Scalzi gets him right — I had more than one flashback to Dr. Death, my own company commander — there is one mistake. Perry is the one recruit who does not provide immediate offense to his new drill instructor, a man who is an expert at finding reasons to hate his recruits. As his reward, Perry is made platoon leader. So far, so good. However, at the end of boot camp, Perry is still platoon leader. Sorry. No fucking way. Every platoon screws up; every drill instructor knows this. The whole point of assigning recruit leadership from the very beginning is to have visible and tangible object lessons. Recruit leaders will pay for the follies of their fellow recruits, but at some point they will be relieved from command so they can learn how to be a regular grunt too. In the meantime, some other hapless victim inherits the nightmare of responsibility without authority. The typical unit goes through 3-4 recruit leaders before settling down on a stable recruit command team, even if that means that likely candidates have been quietly redeemed from their earlier failures and reinstated. It is an important part of the boot camp process and I cannot believe the CDF wouldn’t follow it.
Having said that, though, that’s my biggest fault with the book. Nothing else strains my suspension of disbelief, not even some of the incredible coincidences that come Perry’s way. He’s our viewpoint character precisely because he is placed to reveal secrets we would otherwise not see. Through Perry’s eyes, we find out more about the Ghost Brigades (CDF’s special forces), the Consu (a highly advanced alien race with an odd notion of force parity), and the forces that are arrayed against humanity.
I don’t have enough nice things to say about this book. I read through it last night and immediately handed it over to my wife this morning. She finished it up before dinner and handed it back, so I can now begin a slower, more thorough reading, which is something I rarely do. I’m already looking forward to the sequel, too.
Buy this book. If you don’t like it, you’re a freak of human nature, but that doesn’t matter, because you’ll have bought a copy of the book and generated sales for John. Tell people about this book. Make them buy it. It really is that good.