Old Man's War by Scalzi, John, 2005

Old Man

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Although I really am a decent guy when you get to know me, I'll admit that my own personal outlook has the entire world populated with idiots, and, I'm sorry to say, I'll probably consider you one until I get to know you and you prove me wrong. I get lots of on-line criticism about that. Well, maybe not exactly about that. More like for treating people I don't know like idiots, which in my mind and hopefully in the minds of all non-idiots is something that is seen as directly related to that particular outlook of mine. I guess that makes me a bit of an ass, but what the heck; at least I'm true to myself, and really, what else can we truly ask for in ourselves? I'm pretty sure that is also why I am so reluctant to jump on the bandwagon when a new, highly praised author comes along, although I also happen to believe that most new things are no good. But since said new author bandwagons are often built entirely upon the opinions of internet-idiots, I'll just chalk that one up to the former outlook. Find fault in that too, do you? Just look at where its gotten us with Kevin J. Anderson, and please admit that sometimes, I'm right.

So...a few years ago along came this new guy, a journalist of some sort, named John Scalzi. The idiot-mill immediately went into overdrive, and soon my favorite message boards were abuzz with the virtues of his first book, Old Man's War. My response was fairly typical. I ignored them all and told myself "if it's any good, it'll be available in 2015. I'll just read it then." On a lark I picked it up at the Friends of the Sacramento Public Library warehouse one day (I'm on the board of that organization, but I promise you, I didn't steal it - I got it for free for slaving away a Sunday in the warehouse last fall). Earlier this week I finished reading Odd John at about nine o'clock p.m. one night. I wasn't sleepy so I reached out and found Old Man's War in my hand. Thinking "what the hell, how bad can it be?" I opened it up and did not put it down until about two a.m. Oops. I had to fly to Portland the next morning. I couldn't keep my eyes open on the flight, so I finished it in my hotel that night. It was fantastic.

Old Man's War is a Heinleinian military SF novel about genetically modified and revivified Old Farts. No, really. That's what they call themselves. The fightin' Old Farts. Here's the scenario: It's the near future and human beings have made great scientific advances. We have joined the community of races out there in outer space, and we have sadly come to the realization that we will probably have to kill most of them. There are just way too many intelligent races and way too few habitable planets out there. Those on planet Earth live pretty much in the dark, and to keep them there the powers that be have put together a military force, staffed largely by Americans (or at least those with American sounding names) to defend the colonies that are being settled largely by those from the third world. Earth has built up an enormous military bureaucracy called Colonial Defense Force, or the CDF, to take care of military problems off of planet Earth. In a posse comatatus-like twist, you will never find a CDF soldier on Earth - only those recruiting agents they have hired to do their work there. On Earth everyone has the chance to join the CDF, but only when there reach the age of seventy-five; the CDF wanted nothing but Earth's wisest. Actually, retirees signaled their intent to join at sixty-five, when they went in to sign up and give a DNA sample. At that point they were still beholden to nothing, and could refuse service at any time until they left Earth on their seventy-fifth birthday. After that happened the most miraculous transformation occurred. The CDF took new volunteers to Phoenix Station, in the middle of nowhere, recorded their consciousness electronically, and then downloaded them into genetically modified bodies that they had grown in tanks in the ten years since collecting the DNA samples. The average volunteer came out of the transformation with innate abilities that would qualify them as super beings on Earth; incredible hearing and vision, powerful muscles and a beautiful physique and visage, artificial super-oxygenated blood, green skin and the ability to photosynthesize for energy, nanotech healing abilities, virtual immortality, and a brain implant called a BrainPal that gave them instantaneous communication of data and emotions with other soldiers and access to limitless information in the archives. They needed all these modifications too, but despite their new found power and abilities, they were still little fish in a big sea. As super-soldiers their mission was three-fold. First, they were responsible for the defense of existing colonies. Next, they were charged with finding new planets to colonize. Finally, they were called upon frequently to "convince" other races to share their planets, occasionally by talking them into doing so, but usually by exterminating them. Scalzi's universe was as complex as you can imagine. There were multiple races with different languages, religions, physical needs, strategies, tactics and technology. Too many in fact to do anything but conquer - there was no room for negotiation.

"Now this little fucker is a Salong. Our first official encounter with the Salong happened after we tracked down a rogue colony of humans. People aren't supposed to freelance colonize, and the reason why becomes pretty obvious here. The colonists landed on a planet that was also a colonization target for the Salong; somewhere along the way the Salong decided that humans were good eatin', so they attacked the humans and set up a human meat farm. All the adult human males but a handful were killed, and those that were kept were 'milked' for their sperm. The women were artificially inseminated and their newborns taken, penned and fattened like veal.

"It was years before we found the place. When we did so, the CDF troops razed the Salong colony to the ground and barbecued the Salong colony leader in the cookout. Needless to say we've been fighting the baby-eating sons of bitches ever since."

Old Man's War told the story of a seventy-five year old volunteer soldier named John Perry; a widower who never figured out how to escape the ghost of his recently deceased wife, Kathy. John went to the CDF the way that every other inductee did: without a clue of what was in store for him. All the average Earthling knew was that they could join the CDF at age seventy-five. It was strongly suspected that the CDF would "make you young" again, but neither John nor anyone else had a clue as to what that really meant. The book told the story of John's movement through the armed forces with his team of friends (the "Old Farts") as he made himself into a hero on the battlefield and found the love that he was missing the most.

Scalzi impressed me a great deal with this book. He's an engaging writer; quick-witted, concise, sarcastic and affable. I have a strong feeling that John Perry and he have a lot in common. Perry struck me as a futuristic and mellow-with-age Holden-Caulfield-in-space. Scalzi struck me a bit as a Holden Caulfield type all grown up and in a job that he really, really digs. Scalzi's overarching mode is more heroism than the idiocy of war (and not to discount his sarcastic voice, but that really was secondary to my eye), but both came through loud and clear. Consider this part. In it Perry recounts the death of his ex-lover, friend and fellow Old Fart, Maggie, a retired philosophy teacher from Oberlin. Maggie was sucked into space when her ship broke apart in a battle over a colony called Temperance.

And so Maggie, whose SmartBlood was by now reaching its oxygen-carrying limit and whose body was undoubtedly beginning to scream for oxygen, took her Empee (a nanotech weapon), aimed it at the nearest Ohu ship, computed a trajectory, and unloaded rocket after rocket. Each rocket burst provided an equal and opposite burst of thrust to Maggie, speeding her toward Temperance's darkened, night-time sky. Battle data would later show that her rockets, propellant long spent, did indeed impact against the Ohu ship, dealing some minor damage.

Then Maggie turned, faced the planet that would kill her, and like the good professor of Eastern religions that she used to be, she composed a jisei the death poem, in the haiku form.

Do not mourn for me, friends. I fall as a shooting star. Into the next life.

Scientifically Old Man's War was a bit of a dog. Very little was adequately explained, the whole "skip drive" FLT system I found to be a bit hackish, and having aliens able to digest human meat caused me to directly view the bottom of my brain/top of my orbitals. I suppose some sort of nanotech was involved in the digestive process, but Scalzi never bothered to say one way of the other. On many other levels I think that the book was a masterful success, even if it was a highly derivative work. I said earlier that this book is Heinleinian. As to certain aspects that may be an understatement. Parts of one could still be placed into the other and I doubt that anyone but the most ardent fan or scholar would notice. See if you can guess which this came from:

"Listen up," Viveros said on the way down to the surface. "Our job is strictly to smash and dash. We're landing near the center of their governemnt operations - blast buildings and structures but avoid shooting live targets unless (our) soldiers are targeted first. We've already kicked these people in the balls, now we're just pissing on them while they're down. Be fast, do damage and get back. Are we clear?"

OK, with the language there it should be plainly obvious which book this came from, but doesn't that also remind you of the opening scene in Starship Trooper?

Getting back to the point, think that I should qualify the statement that Old Man's War is Heinleinian, because while it did have quite a bit in common with Heinlein's military SF masterpiece, it was not a repeat of that story. Philosophically Scalzi's book is a meditation on the requirements of the military life. His main character, Perry, seemed to get great satisfaction out of his term of service. He excelled at tactics, he was brave and foolhardy and good at snatching victory out of the hands of certain defeat, and he learned quickly. But even before he signed up to go off to the CDF he dreamed of nothing more than working a plot of land all his own on a colony world. I have a feeling that if asked, Johnny Rico would find that lifestyle appealing too, but Rico knew something about the world that was lost to Perry. That is that no matter how good the service as a whole became at its job, it was Rico's duty alone to make sure that job got done. Perry was really nothing more than a skilled tourist; he was in for his ten-year stint and that was all. He was planning on being gone after that, no matter what the job morphed into.

There is another big difference between Scalzi's book and Heinlein's, and that has to do with the role of government. I believe that Heinlein�s purpose in writing Starship Troopers was to describe a military utopia. It just so happened that a war got in the way of all that world building. But people on Earth were indoctrinated into the military mindset early and taught that the greatest thing that they could give to the utopic government is self-sacrifice. In Scalzi's book the CDF was the powerful government, but it kept the back-water governments of the Earth completely in the dark about the scope of the risk. The CDF's carrot was not duty, honor and citizenship. It was relief from boredom and the vague promise of a new youth and maybe a new life. Despite the similarities of the fatalistic and sarcastic tone, the phenomenally excellent depiction of ground force and space-based combat (don't get me started on how many authors fail with this), and the convincing and singular focus on one character's experience coming to grips with military life, the books really do show a different face to the reader. I certainly do not think that either suffers for that. As a matter of fact, I have as little trouble seeing how Scalzi, as a member of contemporary American culture could produce a book like this as I do seeing how Heinlein in the post WWII years could produce Starship Troopers; these books are both excellent reflections of the attitudes of time in which they were produced. Scalzi's book was a banner that screamed "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" that was adorned with yellow ribbons, while Heinlein's solemnly advised, "I Want You!" Both were a smashing success, and if my guess is right, Old Man's War, like Starship Troopers will be around a hell of a lot longer than 2015.

Copyright � 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)


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