mark monday's Reviews > Old Man's War

Old Man's War by John Scalzi
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May 12, 2012

liked it
bookshelves: futuristik
Read from May 12 to 13, 2012

sometimes a first novel gets everything right. writing that is clean, clear, and fluid. characterization that is simple, straightforward, and real. a narrative that hurtles forward but does not feel rushed or incomplete. ideas that feel new and that are conveyed with enthusiasm and a brisk, unpretentious freshness. such is Old Man's War.

this is a military science fiction novel and the first of a series. that probably brings up a whole host of automatic preconceptions about what will be happening and how the protagonist - a recruit in the interstellar wars of the future - will be quickly introduced to his new life... initial bonding with his fellow soldiers... training with a tough drill master... the first battle... the first kill... the death of comrades... cynicism... more battles, and the promise of more to come... and somewhere in there, perhaps, a bit of unlikely romance. the template has been around for a while, Starship Troopers et al, and Old Man's War doesn't stray from the tried-and-true.

but as anyone even slightly familiar with the novel's premise knows, this traditional narrative gets a shot of adrenalin by having the hero be a 75-year old man who finds not just a new life, but a new body by joining up with humanity's defenders. actually, "adrenalin" is the exact opposite of the word that should be used. because of new soldier John Perry's past life, the novel has actually been injected with a massive dose of wry introspection and not a little melancholy. and so many of those traditional stops on the military scifi journey are likewise transformed into something different. even the inevitable 'unlikely romance' has become a rather original new thing.

oh how i enjoyed the opening chapter! rather than a youngster fit to jump into conflict and other forms of excitement, we get the calm and thoughtful musings of an old man looking back with fondness and sadness on his rich but quite regular life, and getting ready to start that life anew. a contemplation colored with all of the amused and slightly cantankerous distance that a gentle grandfatherly type would have. and much later in the novel, as John Perry spends time with the unusually intriguing romantic interest, we get another warm and often unsentimental portrait of this past life. all quite moving. i did not expect to be so moved by Old Man's War.

despite everything i've mentioned so far, this is still a tough-minded book that is rooted in classic military tropes. there are a lot of fascinatingly exotic and often horrible aliens. there are battles on the ground and up in space. there is blood and guts and a huge body count. and yet the word that comes to mind after reading the novel is... lovely.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 50) (50 new)

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D.G. Great review, mark. I'm definitely adding this to my wishlist.

mark monday thanks DG! i hope you enjoy it.

message 3: by knig (new)

knig Coinkidink. I follow Scalzi's whatever blog, even though i've not read his books. On the other hand, from his constant updates in my email stream, which I can't seem to turn off, I came upon this piece he wrote and which seems to be firing up conversations

mark monday wow! i think i'm in love with John Scalzi.

the angry posts by various assholes in the comment thread were pretty funny, although often eye-rolling & bathetic as well.

Maggie K good article! Mark-if I may ask, if you liked it so much, why only 3 stars?

mark monday thanks Maggie!

for me, 3 stars genuinely means the GR definition of "I Liked It". i liked Old Man's War and i'll be reading the next in the series. it was enjoyable, and certain parts were really memorable. however, i didn't love it with the intensity of a favorite book, so it wasn't a 5-star read, nor was it challenging or immersive enough for me to reread, so it wasn't a 4-star read.

in my 3-star reviews, a lot of times i'll choose to focus on what i liked and not talk about the things that could have been improved. and such is this review. but if i were asked to list minuses to Old Man's War, i would say that the writing - while technically proficient - did not excite me. i would also say that the intriguing central conceit was dropped during many portions in the middle section (as has been noted in the SFA thread).

i liked Old Man's War quite a bit. very enjoyable from start to finish. but i was only blown away, so to speak, by the opening chapter and that dialogue near the end between John & Jane.

message 7: by j (new) - rated it 3 stars

j is this the first scalzi you've read, mark? i liked OMW but his books offer diminishing returns for me... basically, i hope you liked john perry as a narrator because all of his other books are in the exact same smartass voice, even when they are written from the POV of a woman or are actually in third person.

they are all fun reads, but they never really engage me beyond light enjoyment. also, i don't really think he's funny, but apparently i am a tough sell when it comes to humor in novels since i can't think of very many that i actually laugh at. i think i smiled more at the smartass narrator in The Magician King than anything i've read by scalzi.

that said, i've read four or five of them and will likely read Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas. it helps that they are super short.

mark monday you are a tough sell in general, except when it comes to Leviathon Wakes!

yes, this is my first Scalzi and will not be the last. as you say, nice "light entertainment". with two unusually moving parts that i've mentioned that sets it apart.

hey have you checked out the link to a Scalzi's article that is somewhere above in this thread? quite a pleasure to read. although i should have guessed from Scalzi's casual inclusion of gay characters and of women in authority that he has a progressive stance. i guess i never usually think of "military scifi" and "progressive" in the same thought. but it seems to fit Scalzi. which i love!

message 9: by j (last edited May 22, 2012 02:14PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

j mark wrote: "you are a tough sell in general, except when it comes to Leviathon Wakes!


yeah, i read his blog regularly. he's more interesting as a blogger, i think.

message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

I've liked his blog, but I pretty much hated every single one of the five minutes I spent reading Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 before I violently returned it to the library. Which is funny, because it's just collected posts from his blog. Sometimes writing cannot jump media, I think.

message 11: by Nick (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nick Cato GREAT novel---I need to finish the first sequel, THE GHOST BRIGADES. Halfway through but have been sidetracked by review books!

message 12: by j (last edited May 22, 2012 02:30PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

j he does have an air of... smarmy self-importance or something that does grate. but yeah, i can just stop reading those entries.

i mean, he can be proud of himself. he's very successful as an author. and i guess having a personal blog that becomes very successful on its own indicates a certain level of narcissism anyway.

but mostly he's a likeable, interesting guy. who isn't as funny to me as he apparently is to a lot of people.

message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

Yeah, that's probably it: with a blog, I can just bop around and then fuck off when I get bored with it - but a book I tend to give my attention to it. In general, the web to page books don't work for me because of that.

Carol. Knig-o-lass wrote: "I follow Scalzi's whatever blog, even though i've not read his books. On the other hand, from his constant updates in my email stream, which I can't seem to turn off, I came upon this p..."

I just found that blog too, and have a new found respect for him. Very impressive. Added it to my feed.

Kelly H. (Maybedog) I've been wanting to read this but I read Zoe's Tale which is about the same story but from a teenager's perspective. I loved it but I felt I learned too much about the ending so I've been waiting to forget it so I can read this one. Problem is, I liked it to much to forget it.

message 16: by Shovelmonkey1 (new)

Shovelmonkey1 I was loaned this a few years ago and just couldn't get into it. I've just read Solaris and wasn't too bothered by that either although many sci-fi chaps assure me that Mr Lem is the veritable mutts nuts. Perhaps I'm just not that into sci fi.... any suggestions for totally easy to get into sci fi for beginners and buffoons like myself?

message 17: by [deleted user] (new)

I feel like this book is more in the by-nerds-for-nerds category, and therefore maybe not as enjoyable for the not-scifi-nerds-already set.

message 18: by Shovelmonkey1 (new)

Shovelmonkey1 Mmm. Getting into sci fi is more challenging than i thought.

message 19: by [deleted user] (new)

Yeah, there's a lot of different kinds of nerdery. What scifi have you read and liked? That might make it easier to find something nerdish that will work for you. (For example, I like Lem, but he's awfully dry. Goodreaders in general might enjoy his A Perfect Vacuum, which is a series of book reviews of scifi books that don't exist. Like If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, but for nerds.)

message 20: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday for my favorite Shovelmonkey, some recommendations:

but first, a caveat. i think you are a sophisticated reader, so i'm suggesting books that are a bit more on the sophisticated side of things. as far as "totally easy to get into scifi for beginners", well - i would actually say something like Old Man's War, which is simply & cleanly written, not particularly complex, etc, would actually be an ideal entry point. so my guess is that straightforward genre novels are not your ideal entry point. what follows are more complex and often more literary in style & theme:

Stand on Zanzibar by john brunner
The Player of Games by iain banks
The Stars My Destination by alfred bester
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by james tiptree jr.
Dying Inside by robert silverberg
The Einstein Intersection by samuel delany
Shikasta by doris lessing
Shades of Grey by jasper fforde
The Deep by john crowley

and here is one very straightforward space opera suggestion that everyone (including myself) apparently loves, just in case you are not interested in more groundbreaking or literary or ambiguous or whatever/not typical scifi... this is, i suppose, 'typical', but quite well-done. it also takes its style from the Canterbury Tales, which you like (i think):

Hyperion by dan simmons

message 21: by Kelly H. (Maybedog) (last edited Jul 03, 2012 01:09PM) (new) - added it

Kelly H. (Maybedog) Mark, I must respectfully disagree that one of the greatest science fiction books of all time is space opera! I love space opera but Hyperion isn't in that category! The complexity of its exploration into belief, faith, and the human psyche is deep and profound. The subtext about the limits of reason and the power of dogma is so rich that I considered using part of it in my Master's thesis. 

I didn't find Player of Games very accessible. But then I didn't really like the characters. I started Shikasta when I was in high school but couldn't get into it. The rest I haven't read except possibly the Bester novel but I don't remember.

I agree Old Man's War is probably a good choice given the premise but here are some very good but accessible sf books I loved and most have something deep and/or relevant to say about society/humanity/being although only the first two are particularly notable:

The Speed of Dark
The Forever War
To Say Nothing of the Dog
Ender's Game (I didn't love it but I had already read too much sf by then which ruined it; most people I know loved it.)
The Caves of Steel
The Devil's Eye (Not the first in the series but the best so far to me.)
Bad Monkeys (This is arguably fluff but it's really clever.)

And for pure all out fun mental candy:
The Stainless Steel Rat
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

message 22: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday no problem with disagreeing with me, ever.

as far as space opera & Hyperion, i think your point is valid. and upon reflection, i realize that i was compressing that novel and its sequel into one novel. the novel alone is not space opera. however, i firmly believe its sequel is.

it is one of my favorite scifi novels (the duo, not the quartet). i agree that it is profound. but i do think my other suggestions were more literary in their style and in their overall aproach to the genre. Hyperion is deep. it is also resonant. but - interesting revisioning of The Canterbury Tales aside - i do consider it to be mainstream (and thus "straightforward") science fiction.

thanks for the rest of your suggestions! several on your list that i am not at all acquainted with.

Kelly H. (Maybedog) I don't remember the sequel nearly as well but I definitely agree the other two in the series are not nearly as good and are trying too hard to be deep.

What is your definition of space opera? I know it has changed in the sf community over the years. I still like the original definition which to me is melodrama in space like an old fashioned "horse opera" with sheriffs and outlaws and back country, etc. Star Wars is quintessential space opera. My favorite though is Harrison's Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers. It's really a spoof/satire of space opera that has an hilarious twist on the last page.

message 24: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday includes melodrama, definitely. also: galactic span and galactic stakes, multiple examples of world-building, alien races, numerous battles, mind-boggling concepts... that whole drill. i think space opera can be exceedingly serious as well.

Kelly H. (Maybedog) Hmm. I don't think of mind boggling concepts as being space opera unless they're ridiculous. I think of that as what separates space opera from true sf. In fact that's the real definition to me: something that could just as easily be told in the modern world but just uses space as a backdrop. But I think our definitions of space opera are as diverse as our definitions of sf. :)

message 26: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday Definitely different! I dont think of space opera as automatically ridiculous and I do consider it to be true scifi. It is less soap o pera and more 'operatic'.

Kelly H. (Maybedog) So what makes something not space opera for you? These definitions are so hard. My definition of sf is that it is something that is not currently happening in our world that is plausible with our our physical laws. But for others it has to have science in it.

message 28: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday usually confined to one locale (planet, spaceship, space station, etc), including planetary romance; alternate history; scifi concepts taking place in the modern world or in the past; a lot of science fantasy; probably more...

Francine Nice review, mark! I just finished it myself and am starting on the second one. I did enjoy the very beginning, with him ruminating on his old (as he stood in the cemetery) and new (in the enlistment office) lives. I just thought it took a long time to get to the meaty parts...which, for me, didn't start until Coral.

message 30: by mark (last edited Jul 15, 2012 01:41PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday thanks Francine! i'm pretty sure i will. i want to know more about the Ghost Brigade!

message 31: by Kelly H. (Maybedog) (last edited Jul 19, 2012 12:52PM) (new) - added it

Kelly H. (Maybedog) Whatever you think about the book, I hope you agree that Scalzi is completely awesome (and hilarious):

Bad Reviews: I Can Handle Them An So Should You

message 32: by mark (last edited Jul 19, 2012 02:16PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday right now i am just counting the minutes before Joel jumps in and disagrees with you.

but i will check out that book blog!

message 33: by j (new) - rated it 3 stars

j it's just a blog post, mark. way to humor her.

message 34: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday oh fine Joel, i'll edit my post. you're so OCD!

message 35: by DMS (new)

DMS Deja vu.

message 36: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday how so, DMS? Joel's regular distaste for Scalzi? or my admittedly repetitious and/or OCD nature?

message 37: by DMS (new)

DMS I could swear I saw Kelly's comment on another review just a little while ago.

message 38: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday i'm actually a big fan of that blog post. because i am NOT a big fan of that sickening website that posts personal information about reviewers who are supposedly mean to authors. seriously, that website is fucking toxic! a mean or snarky review does not equal bullying. and posting personal information about mothers and their children as some sort of misguided revenge is just plain evil. i've never been a particular fan of the Mean Girls of Goodreads, but what that website does is the most base and hypocritical example of vicious, over-scaled, petty revenge that i've seen for a while.

sorry for the rant DMS, i know you didn't request one! so i offer it to the world, free of charge.

message 39: by DMS (new)

DMS Never apologize for a good rant, mark.

message 40: by [deleted user] (new)

Kelly hit me with the link too, which was awesome. But yeah, dejavooosh when I got notified on both threads. Hi Kelly!

message 41: by j (new) - rated it 3 stars

j i think it is a really good post. like i said, scalzi is a pretty cool dude. i like his blog, i like the way he thinks, we jibe politically, he's generally amusing and i think he's good for the health of the genre.

i just don't like his books very much.

message 42: by [deleted user] (new)

You can admit you hate him.

message 43: by j (new) - rated it 3 stars


message 44: by seak (new) - rated it 4 stars


I knew you were a GR bully!

Kelly H. (Maybedog) I knew you'd love it Mark. I posted it to all my friends who reviewed this particular book. I didn't go crazy or nuthin'. :) Hi Ceridwen! 

I just like the authors who jumped in and said that what those horrible people are doing is not okay and that are acting like they are twelve. I really like the way he wrote it and he even cursed, point in his favor, although he wasn't nearly so vehement as Stacia Kane. (
Ooo that girl can rant!

message 46: by Tom (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tom Loock Very good review, but why just 3 stars?

message 47: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday thanks Tom! your answer is in msg 6.

message 48: by Bret (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bret Drager Interesting concept. I really enjoyed the the Old Man's War... and I normally am a bit tired of the military focus and battles in many books. I know it adds adds excitement, but... In any case this was different.

message 49: by Bret (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bret Drager And I am reading the rest. The only problem I see is that I felt the idea of the "old" man faded away a bit.

message 50: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday agree!

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