book review: The Old Man's War


A brilliant science fiction novel that raises many questions and sets up an intriguing universe.

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 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's focus on Perry, 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 created in more detail later.

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