Retirees vs. The Galaxy: John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War
I try to vary my reading, with debatable success. If anything else, I at least try to alternate cheesy fantasy novels with cheesy sci-fi novels…and so here we are!
I’d heard lots of good things about John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, but I hadn’t really gotten around to reading Scalzi until now. I’ll admit, the fact that those puppy jerks hate Scalzi with seething nerd-rage contributed just a little bit to why I finally got around to reading this book, but only a little bit. (I’ll also shut up about puppygate for now. Honest. Probably honest).
What’s funny is, Old Man’s War is the sort of straight-up mil-sci-fi space adventure that the puppygaters have been clamoring for this whole damn time.
The plot is simple, to the point of being something you’ve probably read before. Old Man’s War is written from the perspective of John Perry, an Earthman who signs up for the space marines (they don’t call them that but that’s pretty much what they are). The novel then follows John as he goes through space boot camp, fights various horrible people-eating space aliens, and rises from buck private all the way to the rank of captain for his heroic exploits (in space).
John is also seventy five years old when he enlists.
Seeing as of how the elderly don’t make for much of an army, the Colonial Union (read: the human space government) makes it a point to transfer their elderly recruit’s minds into sexy, genetically-enhanced bodies with green skin. Scalzi’s a very genre-aware author (I mean, he wrote a book called Redshirts), so I’m sure the green skin thing is on purpose.
On the surface, Old Man’s War is pretty much an updated Starship Troopers. The green-marines have AI networking hardwired into their heads, and their weapons (and all their gear, really) runs on nanotechnology, integrating concepts that hadn’t even been thought of in Heinlein’s time. But really, coming up with fancy toys to use in a sci-fi novel is nothing new.
What really distinguishes Old Man’s War from a lot of other Mil-SF is its deeper themes. For one, I found it pretty refreshing that the Colonial Union isn’t a space empire with space royalty, because that seems to be the default setting of a lot of these pulpy works. We really don’t get much of a picture of how the government works in general- Perry just goes where he’s supposed to and shoots what he’s told to shoot. However, there’s at least hints of a corporate dystopia in there- mostly in the fact that all of the green-marines’ gear is branded and copyrighted- down to their cloned bodies and nanotech-enhanced Smartblood(tm). It’s a terrifying concept, if you think about it. Of course, most green-marines die horribly before they serve out their ten year service term, so the trademarked blood is pretty far down their on their list of priorities.
The biggest theme that stuck out at me was themes of life after death. Earthlings can only enlist with the Colonial Union on their 75th birthday, and upon doing so, they’re declared legally dead. The resulting ‘rebirth’ into sexy green bodies and trials of combat can be seen as equivalent to hell, or at least purgatory.
On top of that, the most interesting aliens in the book, the Consu, are xenophobic fanatics, which plays into the general themes of afterlife and religion in the novel. Of course, this being pulpy sci-fi, a lot of the Consu’s religion stems from concepts like ‘kill everyone because they’re awful, and then kill yourself for being defiled by stooping to their level.’ It’d be easy for Scalzi to make this a cheap strawman of religion in general (or Islam and Jihad specifically), but he only lightly touches on this, handling it very subtly. The Consu are horrible monsters, sure, but we get a glimpse into what makes them tick- which is more than can be said for most of the other alien races Perry winds up shooting. Most of those bad guys don’t have motives beyond ‘we’re jerks and we like the way humans taste.’
Old Man’s War is a book that operates on multiple levels- as on the one hand, it’s a slam-bang space adventure with enough blood and guts and rocket launchers to fill a Contra level. On the other hand, Scalzi integrates a lot of new ideas and themes that I haven’t seen in Mil-SF before, which elevates it to something past the typical pulpy space opera. Not that there’s anything wrong with cheesy fun, but Scalzi’s fresh spin on the themes of going to space and blowing up space aliens makes Old Man’s War a book to look out for. And as an added bonus, there’s several more in the series I’ve yet to read, so I’ll have something to look forward to. Neat!