Saturday, May 2, 2015

Old Man's War - John Scalzi

     2007; 306 pages.  Book 1 (out of soon-to-be 6) in the Old Man’s War series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Science Fiction; Military Sci-Fi.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    It really is an enticing proposal that the CDF (Colonial Defense Forces) offers to old folks.  At age 75, you sign an “Intent To Join” form.  Then you have 10 years (assuming you don’t die along the way) to actually enlist.  You have to serve for at least two years, and the Army has the option to keep you for an additional eight.  After that you can retire to a colony of your choice, the only stipulation being that you can never return to Earth.

    For 85-year old John Perry, the time to join up is now.  His wife, Kathy, died several years back, and there’s really nothing holding him to this life of geezerhood.  Besides, there’s a rumor that the CDF has some sort of rejuvenation process that de-ages you back to being a 20-year-old.  Which makes sense, since you wouldn’t want to be fighting galactic baddies with a bunch of senior citizens.

    Death is a distinct possibility whenever one enlists in an army at war, but it was a certainty back on Earth; and new worlds, new adventures, and a new life await all the new (well, “old”) recruits.

    But first, there’s Boot Camp.

What’s To Like...
    For Military Sci-Fi enthusiasts, there’s lots of blood and gore, kewl weapons, and a fair amount of strategy and tactics.  Bad guys get killed; good guys get killed; it’s the nature of war.  For “Hard” Sci-Fi enthusiasts, there are multiverses tachyons, nanobots, and a fascinating “beanstalk” that inspires a provocative contemplation of the mechanics needed to build it.  But the fighting and physics never overshadow a well-crafted storyline that kept me reading “just one more chapter” late at night.

    John Perry is dry-humored, resourceful, and down-to-earth (pun intended), with just enough of a rebellious streak to make him a great protagonist.  There’s a fascinating supporting cast to get to know as well., including the irrepressible Quantum Physics whiz Harry Wilson, and the guy with the kewlest title, Private Senator Ambassador Secretary Bender.  Just be careful not to get too attached to anybody in the CDF; the attrition rate in galactic warfare is steep.

    Old Man’s War is divided into three roughly equal-in-length sections.  Part One is about the CDF Recruitment program and offers some pithy thoughts about old age and dying.  Part Two focuses on Boot Camp and Fighting, and gives you food for thought about war, sacrifice, and alien mindsets.  Part Three concerns the Ghost Brigade, and to detail its themes would involve spoilers.

    There’s quite a bit of cussing lots of violence, and some sex; but hey, it’s the Army; what would you expect?!  Balancing all this is a stream of wit and humor and just further enhances the storytelling.  The Special Forces troops all have surnames honoring science nerds – Dalton, Hawking, Bohr, Sagan, Fermi, etc.  How geekily kewl is that!?  And the recounting of the meeting with the Consu (83% Kindle) will have you chuckling out loud.

  The story is told from John Perry’s first-person POV, which works wonderfully here.  This is the first book in a series, but it’s also a standalone novel.  The ending is well-constructed and poignant.

Kewlest New Word...
Tachyon (n.) : a hypothetical particle that travels faster than light.  (See the Wikipedia article on this)
Others : Phoneme (n.); Supernumerary (n., although it can also be an adjective); Anthropophagous (adj.)

    “Anyway, you’re going to join an organization you’ve never met.  Doesn’t that bother you?”
    “No,” I admitted.  “I’m old, my wife is dead and there’s not much reason to stay here anymore.  Are you going to join when the time comes?”
    She shrugged.  “I don’t mind getting old.”
    “I didn’t mind getting old when I was young, either,” I said.  “It’s the being old now that’s getting to me.”  (loc. 212)

    “You may refer to me as Ambassador, unworthy though I am of the title,” the Consu said.  “I am a criminal, having disgraced myself in battle on Pahnshu, and therefore am made to speak to you in your tongue.  For this shame I crave death and a term of just punishment before my rebirth.  It is my hope that as a result of these proceedings I will be viewed as somewhat less unworthy, and will thus be released to death.  It is why I soil myself by speaking to you.”
    “It’s nice to meet you, too,” I said.  (loc. 3678)

Kindle Details...
    Old Man’s War sells for $2.99 at Amazon right now, which is a really good deal for a full-length novel from a currently red-hot Sci-Fi author.  The other books in the series are priced in the $5.99-$8.99 range.  John Scalzi’s novels outside this series are in the $7.99-$11.99 range, including a Little Fuzzy book that I will search high and low to find.  He also has a number of short stories and novellas for the Kindle, appropriately lesser-priced.

(H)ow comfortable can you really be with a race that sees you as a nutritious part of a complete breakfast?  (loc. 2750)
    John Scalzi acknowledges in the Afterword the Robert Heinlein influence on Old Man’s War, and indeed, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers will spring quickly to mind if you’ve read or watched it.  Some trademark Heinlein motifs are present, such as women being equally good soldiers as their male counterparts (and no one making a big deal about that).

    But Scalzi doesn’t merely rehash Heinlein themes; he expands upon them.  The alien cultures here are much more detailed and varied, as are the unforeseen and potentially-lethal dangers one inevitably encounters when touching down in a new, far-flung, alien world.  Indeed, one of the real delights in reading this book was seeing just how many surprising variations the author could come up with in these areas.

    This was my first John Scalzi book, and it is always a treat to discover a great new author who has a bunch of other books available.  Alas, there’s quite a waiting list for both his e-books and “book books” at my local library.  So it may be time for a field trip to my local used-book stores this weekend.

    9½ Stars.  Subtract 1 star if you thought Starship Troopers was a stupid movie.  I happen to think it was brilliant.

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