Book review: Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

22 09 2017

John Scalzi is an American SF author with multiple Hugo nominations: his novel Redshirts won a Hugo in 2013. I’ve previously reviewed his novella The Dispatcher, here.

OldMansWar

Old Man’s War—published in 2005 (and subsequently Hugo-nominated) but serialised on his blog Whatever two years earlier—is Scalzi’s debut novel, and the first in a sequence of mil-SF novels. Its narrator is the seventy-five-year-old John Perry, a widower and retired advertising copywriter from Ohio, who fulfils a pledge made with his late wife Kathy to enlist in the Earth-defending, alien-fighting Colonial Defense Force on his 75th birthday. The incentive for enlistment is the offer of rejuvenation, a powerful drawcard that ensures the CDF is inundated with willing recruits with a lifetime of valuable experience … and no idea, whatever, of what they’re getting into. The Galaxy, it seems, is a considerably more dangerous place than Earth’s citizens would tend to believe, and the CDF’s attrition rate is horrendously high as its soldiers take on a bewildering range of bloodthirsty alien races, each of them eager to lay claim to more and yet more of the desirable real estate in Earth’s neighbourhood. It’s an affectionately pulpy, unashamedly Heinlein-inspired perspective on the Universe; its saving grace is that it’s also sufficiently self-aware to critique and even lampoon the precepts upon which it’s constructed. The dialogue is sharp, the humour (for the most part) unforced, the changes in pace sometimes dizzying … it’s a story which doesn’t really transcend the limitations of the mil-SF subgenre, but I don’t think that’s its intent. There are flaws to it: the US-centric tone doesn’t really make sense in view of the underlying future history (there seems to be no satisfactory reason why the CDF intakes would be drawn entirely from the elderly of the United States, but they are), the body count is horrific, the combat sometimes seems more than a little gratuitous, and Perry conveys, overall, as rather too much of a ‘Mary Sue’. But there is some inventive play with the book’s familiar SF furniture and some well-drawn poignancy in the novel’s characterisation; and just enough uncertainty about the merit of combat sneaks through to avoid echoing the recruitment-poster sentiments of, say, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

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