Biafra's Reviews > Old Man's War

Old Man's War by John Scalzi
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's review
Jul 20, 2014

really liked it
bookshelves: finished_2014, written_review

The Old Man's War is clas­sic sci­ence-fic­tion. After read­ing Orson Scott Card's How to write sci­ence fic­tion, this reads like a per­fect ex­e­cu­tion of how to cre­ate a com­pelling world, in­tro­duce a solid group of char­ac­ters, and have enough hooks to keep the reader going. If you like sci-fi, read this. If not, read this any­way. And then read Joe Halde­man's The For­ever War (I'll save writ­ing about that for an­other time). This re­view con­tains spoil­ers.

On the whole, Scalzi does a good job of keep­ing the story feel­ing com­pact and to the point, with­out extra fluff that might side­track sim­i­larly themed nov­els. He in­tro­duces the var­i­ous char­ac­ters and builds their back sto­ries, makes his big re­veal early on, and then cuts straight to the ac­tion, keep­ing the plot mov­ing for­ward at a nice clip. John Perry, the pro­tag­o­nist, is an agree­able lad, but didn't find him as mem­o­rable a char­ac­ter com­pared to oth­ers in re­cent nov­els I've read, such as San­cho Panza from Don Quixote or Mark Wat­ney was in The Mar­t­ian. How­ever, Perry's mo­tives are clear and he never once be­comes an­noy­ing or whiney, which given the cir­cum­stances he goes through might seem rea­son­able. There are mo­ments were you are left won­der­ing why the au­thor is telling you a par­tic­u­lar de­tail or re­count­ing a spe­cific mem­ory of Perry's, but these are short and end up being nec­es­sary later in the story.

Dur­ing the first act of the story, we ac­quainted with Perry's ini­tial group of friends: Harry, Jesse, Mag­gie, and Allen. They are 2D at best, which is per­haps a strength. For ex­am­ple, Harry is the para­noid one that is snoop­ing around (read hack­ing) try­ing to fig­ure out what is going to hap­pen to them once they reach the Colo­nial De­fense Forces (CDF) base. While the char­ac­ters evolve to a de­gree, this story is less about them specif­i­cally and more about pro­vid­ing a group of friends that give Perry's ac­tions later in the story added grav­ity and more clearly demon­strate the loss felt by these fu­ture sol­diers.

Hav­ing seen Obliv­ion (the fu­ture apoc­a­lypse movie with Tom Cruise) awhile back and got­ten used to sto­ries that use this trick, Perry's wife com­ing back from the dead is in­ter­est­ing, if not un­ex­pected. In this case, it ap­pears the CDF trans­fers the con­scious­ness, or part of it, of peo­ple who have died into very young bod­ies that are trained from birth to fight hu­man­ity's war. I wish the im­pli­ca­tions of the CDF spe­cial forces being in­fants in adult bod­ies with adult train­ing and mem­o­ries for spe­cific as­pects of their lives could have been ex­plored more, but Scalzi leaves that topic for later books (e.g. The Ghost Brigades). For ex­am­ple, if Perry or an­other of­fi­cer that was older gets into a re­la­tion­ship with these peo­ple, what are the moral im­pli­ca­tions? If some­one is 5 but has had mem­o­ries im­planted so they act like a 25 year old in most as­pects, are they in a po­si­tion to vote, drink, have sex, etc.? To what de­gree would we mod­ify our laws to match the mind's de­vel­op­ment rather than bi­o­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ment? As noted be­fore, Scalzi keeps the story going at a nice clip, so it is per­haps for the best that he doesn't ex­plore these ques­tions and leaves them for later books.

And on the topic of un­ex­plored ques­tions: the book im­plies that there are 20 bil­lion hu­mans and 4 tril­lion mem­bers of other species. That leaves things ripe for ex­plo­ration in fur­ther nov­els, but it does seem like most of the other species en­coun­tered in the book fol­low Earth­like con­ven­tions. They all ap­pear war-like or im­pe­ri­al­is­tic and even those that are not ex­pan­sion­ist ap­pear to tend to­ward vi­o­lent re­ac­tions to hu­mans. As with the For­ever War, this might more be a com­men­tary on how hu­mans tend to view that which is alien to them. This leads to an at­tack first, ask ques­tions later men­tal­ity, seem­ingly hard­ened by the var­i­ous mil­i­tary com­man­ders in the book hav­ing an utter dis­tain (and given their ex­pe­ri­ences de­fend­ing the CDF's bor­ders, jus­ti­fied) for alien life­forms.

There are other in­ter­est­ing top­ics left un­ex­plored: are peo­ple im­mor­tal now that they can trans­fer to new bod­ies? Does any­one ever go back to Earth or do you get prob­lems like in the For­ever War where rel­a­tiv­ity causes prob­lems in terms of aging of the sol­diers com­pared to civil­ians? Read­ing this hot on the heels of Mi­chio Kaku's bird's eye view of neu­ro­science re­search (The Fu­ture of the Mind), sev­eral more spe­cific ques­tions come to mind: why are they still using human brains when they ob­vi­ously can repli­cate and trans­fer con­scious­ness? Could they not just up­load hu­mans into com­put­ers and be rid of the has­sle of bi­o­log­i­cal vessles? Why don't they trans­fer peo­ple's minds in small con­tain­ers when trav­el­ing be­tween worlds and re­con­sti­tute peo­ple there to save fuel costs? These ques­tions are sim­i­lar to ones Card noted should be an­swered by the au­thor be­fore writ­ing the story, to make sure that within the story world's logic, there aren't fan­tas­tic feats of tech­nol­ogy in one area that are iso­lated to that sin­gle area. How­ever, this seems eas­ily ex­plained if you as­sume that they ac­quired the tech­nol­ogy, which is hinted at in the story. Along this theme, nan­otech­nol­ogy is in­tro­duced and while it is not all per­va­sive, I do like that the suits in­cor­po­rate nan­otech­nol­ogy and use it to not only aug­ment the suit, but the wearer's blood as well.

In the end, this book raises some in­ter­est­ing ques­tions, such as at what point do we stop being human?, that are only tan­gen­tially ex­plored. In ad­di­tion, there are the as­tute bi­o­log­i­cal ob­ser­va­tions about the views taken by the CDF to­ward other races and the mis­un­der­stand­ing that causes, some­thing Joe Halde­man's The For­ever War hints at, but doesn't make cen­tral to its plot. How­ever, de­spite gloss­ing over what might have been the more in­ter­est­ing as­pects of this uni­verse, Scalzi focus on Perry and his ex­pe­ri­ences, and how the bat­tles across the galaxy changed him, was a bet­ter call in terms of set­ting up a se­ries and pro­vid­ing enough breath­ing room to ex­plore the uni­verse he's setup in more de­tail later.


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