Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

March 1, 2009 at 7:27 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

It takes a lot of guts to write an SF book that strongly recalls one of the most-read books in the genre. Most of your readers will have read the older work and the danger of unfavorable comparison is very large. Old Man’s War is such a book, so faithful in its echoing of Starship Troopers that at times it could almost be a remake.

But it’s not. Scalzi stakes out his book’s reason for existence on two points of departure. First, the preachy undercurrent of Starship Troopers has been removed. It’s not just that the preaching itself is gone but more subtly this is a world that is painted in the moral grays of modern intellectual thought. The second is that, whereas the setting of Starship Troopers amounted to “war against bugs”, in Old Man’s War the world and main character have a number of very interesting elements. In an inversion of the usual practice, the human side of this war is fought by old men and women who are paid with rejuvenation. The human government is advanced but shadowy and distant, keeping Earth entirely in the dark about the war and everyone else in almost as much ignorance. The aliens are not a monolithic enemy but a vast collection of almost universally hostile species, intelligent but too alien to truly understand.

Having introduced us to this world with the crossing-over mechanic more frequently seen in fantasy, Scalzi efficiently moves the story through all the moments you expect when reading military fiction like this: training, graduation, first assignment, first combat, etc. His sparse first person narrative matches the needs of the story well and while the dialogue isn’t always totally convincing, the narrator is likable and manages to inject some humor into what would otherwise be a rather grim story.

Unfortunately, I had two problems with the novel. Big problems. The first is that although a big deal is made of the protagonist’s age, only minimal biographical edits would be required to remove this element. All of the book’s old soldiers act virtually identical to their young counterparts in the dozens of military SF books that have preceded this one.

The second problem is that without the political and social commentary, there’s not a lot to Starship Troopers. Removing that stuff makes Old Man’s War lean and more accessible, but the addition, namely the setting, is just superficial. I’ve already complained about the way age is handled, but in fact while Scalzi teases many different interesting ideas in the book there is no follow through on any of them.¬† To pick just one example, the soldiers have very little in common with the people they are fighting for. This fact is observed a few times but not investigated. It’s an interesting situation, and one with parallels in today’s world…wouldn’t it be great if the book really examined that?

Well, a book did do that: it was called Forever War. I’m sure Scalzi has read it, but he sticks close by Heinlein’s side for Old Man’s War even though his setting is screaming for him to update and react to Haldeman’s book. I suppose it’s possible he uses the sequels to engage with all the ideas he introduced without investigation and I’ll probably give them a try, but Old Man’s War is a finely written confection, satisfying for what it is but without the substance I would have liked.

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  1. […] to sell the melodrama, but for me at least there was no connection. In fact, looking back at my review of Old Man’s War (the contents of which, needless to say, I had completely forgotten) […]

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