Saturday, October 11, 2014

Old Man's War: review

I'm not sure how I managed to miss John Scalzi's excellent Old Man's War for as long as I did. Don't let the novel's title fool you: this isn't about fogies shambling around at a snail's pace while mumbling existentially: it's a sci-fi action movie in prose form. Ohioan John Perry is seventy-five years old, a citizen of an Earth that exists a few centuries beyond our own time. His wife has died and he's looking for a new beginning... so he joins the army.

Humanity, since the invention of the "skip drive," has become aware that the galaxy is teeming with life, just as Earth itself is brimming with biota. In fact, overpopulation and resource-depletion have inspired the push to colonize other worlds, and Earth is in the early stages of forming what, in several millennia, will become Asimov's Galactic Empire. But unlike Asimov's universe, Scalzi's is populated with a wide variety of alien life, and most of those life forms want to kill us. In almost every instance, the real estate that humans find, in their search for Lebensraum, is contested turf, thus necessitating the existence of the formidable CDF, the Colonial Defense Forces, whose primary purpose is to protect colonists and/or make room for them to settle onto and colonize new worlds. Humans have the option of joining the military at the age of seventy-five; if they live to seventy-five, they drop all their terrestrial obligations, are declared legally dead on Earth, and are whisked away for military rehabilitation and training, never to see their home planet or their loved ones again. As Perry, our first-person narrator, notes, when you're seventy-five, you start to become interested in anything that promises a return of youthful health and vigor.

Old Man's War follows—as Scalzi himself notes in his afterword—a narrative trajectory that will be familiar to anyone who has read Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers: the grueling military training, the constant fights with aliens, the newfangled weaponry, the colorful drill instructors, the steady rise of the main character as he's promoted through the ranks. But there are differences. One of the great mysteries, in the first third of the novel, is how, exactly, the CDF rejuvenates old people to get them into plausible fighting shape. I don't want to spoil this for any potential readers of Scalzi's novel, so I'll just say that it's a solution I didn't foresee, but it's also one with which I'm very familiar.

The main plot of the novel focuses on Perry's evolution from a mild-mannered, war-hating Ohioan to a killing machine. The story takes us through several campaigns as the humans clear off planets that have been invaded by various forms of intelligent alien life and describes Perry's friendship with The Old Farts—the initial clique of septuagenarian recruits who join the CDF with Perry along with thousands of others. The Farts end up going their separate ways, and several of them die off as the story progresses. Perry, meanwhile, discovers that there is a woman in the Special Forces who looks exactly like his dead wife Kathy, and this discovery leads to one of the book's major subplots as Perry, who misses his wife terribly, tries to reconcile himself with the possibility that Kathy has been reconstituted, if not outright resurrected, through the CDF's spooky rejuvenation technology.

The novel also gives us an idea of what a futuristic military might look and act like. CDF soldiers are enhanced versions of humans, and they're all connected to each other through BrainPals—a sort of hard-wired Internet that allows the mental broadcast of sounds, images, and even emotions. This facilitates wordless communication, thus allowing the CDF to execute tactics quietly. Nano-swarm heat shields morph into parachutes when soldiers must drop onto a planet from space; battle suits harden instantly when a projectile impacts upon them, distributing the force of the impact over the soldier's entire body. The CDF soldiers' MP rifle ("Empee") uses a heavy block of dense nano-material that the rifle converts into whatever type of shot is needed at the moment. Each rifle is linked to each individual soldier and to that soldier's BrainPal, thus making it impossible to use a soldier's weapon against him.

Like Starship Troopers, Old Man's War ends on a somewhat inconclusive note. We leave Perry in medias res, having resolved certain personal issues but having many loose ends yet to tie together. The book makes for an exciting ride; it was very hard for me to put it down (I read it in e-book form on my phone's Kindle app). If you enjoyed books like Starship Troopers and Ender's Game, you'll enjoy Scalzi's contribution to the genre.


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