Science fiction is still young. Perhaps it's eternally young.
Optimism, bull-headedness, and a gung-ho attitude never seem far away
when one foot is always in the future. But the genre is also old enough
to have set a number of precedents, to have in living reader's active
recall the memories of first reading the first books where a genre standard
was created. Those memories are what keep many readers searching through
the shelves to find something that truly re-invents the trope rather
than simply recycling it. A huge number of today's science fiction readers
and writers first encountered the genre when they read Robert A. Heinlein's
juvenile science fiction novels, regarded by many as his best work. In
those books, Heinlein invented many a standard, and they've been revisited
by many a writer. Still, it's tough to imagine how one might go about
re-creating the adolescent joy of reading a science fiction novel for
a jaded adult who has spent a good part of the last century and all of
'Old Man's War' by John Scalzi manages to set a particularly difficult
but specific goal for itself and then achieves the goal with the kind
of reckless ease exhibited by its hero, John Perry. John Scalzi has done
no less than write an adult version of a Heinlein-juvenile-styled novel
for the adults who grew up reading Heinlein's originals. While the book
is aimed at an mature audience it provides those that audience the warm
thrills they experienced some twenty-thirty-forty-fifty-sixty-seventy
years ago when they first read science fiction. But Scalzi's success
is not just nostalgia. He's written a thoroughly entertaining addition
to the science fiction canon of Space Adventures with a few original
As 'Old Man's War' begins, more than a couple of centuries from now,
humanity has made it out into space. We're not alone and we're not welcome.
There aren't that many planets worth colonizing, and there are lots of
aggressive, intelligent species trying to do so. We've got to fight for
our right to party. John Perry is seventy-five. His wife is dead and
he has little to look forward to except more aches, more pains and the
slow descent into old age. So, like many his age, he joins the Colonial
Defense Forces. And wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am (the officer at the recruitment
desk is in fact a woman), he's in the Army now.
From there onwards, Scalzi piles on the fun and cops an attitude that
lasts for the entire novel. Mordant, occasionally laugh-lout-loud funny,
'Old Man's War' sets up the rules and then plays by them. I'm not going
to tell you how Scalzi gets around the aging issue, but I will tell you
that he does. It's a pretty clever trick, but it does allow him to avoid
dealing with the physical issues of growing old. Suffice it to say that
the old folks you see on the cover don't last for more than 75 pages.
But they bring with them a wealth of experience that occasionally helps
them overcome the series of hurdles that Scalzi sets up.
Scalzi does all sorts of stuff right in this novel. He gives his grunts
a damn fine gun. He gives them some nice new software that allows them
to communicate with one another, and in a sort of tribute to Thomas M.
Disch's classic story 'Fun With Your New Head' includes a pamphlet that
tells the recruits how to have fun with their...but that would be telling.
Suffice it to say it's a neat piece of satire. He also gives them a BrainPal
and a few nice nods to the cyberpunks, then it's off to war. The battles
build cumulatively to a final grudge match that involves brains, brawn
and a bit of derring-do.
Written from the first-person point-of-view of John Perry, Scalzi's
prose is serviceably slick and often funny. But he doesn't go overboard.
There's a nicely meat-and-potatoes feel to this novel, which is perfectly
appropriate to the subject and the effect that Scalzi successfully generates.
Strangely enough, though this is a novel of space adventure, there's
not too much rocket science here. There is enough to get us out in space
and few nice speculative touches to keep you thinking. But this is not
a book of big thinks.
Since this is a book about fighting aliens for planets, readers can
expect the aliens to come early and often. That is the case, and there
are some pretty imaginative spins on extraterrestrial life. Still, you
won't exactly get detailed monsters here; you got your green slime, your
big lobster, your monster dogs, and even some monster deer. The monsters
however, are not the point, the people are.
Scalzi's universe and his literary format lend themselves to an episodic
style. He'll create one set of characters for John and then systematically
kill them off. If John Perry weren't such a strong presence the novel
might seem disjointed, but Scalzi holds things together pretty well.
He does some excellent hint-dropping to set up what proves the be the
main thrust of the novel and ties things up rather nicely, leaving room
for the sequel he says is already in the works, 'The Ghost Brigades'.
'Old Man's War' is not just an old man's novel, though it will hold
strong appeal to those of us who first cut their teeth on 'Have Spacesuit
Will Travel' and especially 'Starship Troopers'. Readers new to the genre,
and indeed women will find it rather more appealing than they might at
first suspect. Scalzi knows a lot of things, something he makes clear
in the course of the novel. But he knows one thing vital to the novel's
success. He knows how to have fun.