When asked by Ben Bova to explain the difference between a “critic” and a “reviewer,” Spider Robinson replied, “A book critic tells you whether or not it’s Art. A book reviewer tells you whether it’s any damn good.” I don’t know that I consider Old Man’s War art. For fans of military SF, however, it amounts in the balance to a good read. It garnered a Hugo nomination, established Scalzi’s name, and its most recent sequel has been nominated for this year’s Hugo.

Title: Old Man’s War

Author: John Scalzi
ISBN-10: 0-765-34827-6
ISBN-13: 978-0-765-34827-6
First Published: 2005

Available from Amazon.com
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Premise:

We live in a Frank Drake universe, but most of our neighbours don’t like us and competition for inhabitable planets is intense. Imagine Star Trek, if all those other races looked and behaved more like the creatures from Alien.

The Colonial Defense Force, which has access to alien technology unavailable to other humans, protects Terran colonies and fights for expansion. They don’t enlist the young. Rather, elderly, experienced volunteers have the opportunity to be altered into perfect soldiers. If they survive, they settle on a colony and live another life.

High Point

Scalzi scores in three key character-related areas:

1. Most of the aliens play like horror-flick monsters, but we are seeing them from the soldier’s perspective, and it would be easy for humans in this particular reality to fall into old-fashioned propaganda that reduces the enemy to vermin. While I hoped for more irony and problematizing of the aliens, I was satisfied with the enigmatic Consu. We may not find them admirable, but they have a complex culture behind them and truly alien motivation. I expect we see more of them in the sequels.

2. The soldiers receive a cyberpunk-style implant known as BrainpalTM. The new recipients’ interactions are both plausible and amusing, and Scalzi provides some interesting speculation on how implanted technology and other modifications might affect personality, behavior, and relationships.

3. Jane is a member of the Ghost Brigade, elite soldiers grown from the DNA of dead volunteers and engineered into a force which serves specific purposes. Her interaction with John Perry, whose late wife provided the DNA, has a bizarre reality about it that feels plausible.

Low Point

1. This novel has been heavily influenced by Heinlein, and if its successes recall Heinlein, so do its flaws. Scalzi gives us too many scenes of expository and persuasive dialogue, especially in the first half. I understand the importance of world-building, but much of Part One could have been cut without the book suffering.

2. While Scalzi avoids real-world pontificating (the views expressed by the characters sound like theirs), his writing features the Heinleinian characteristic of a reality that (seemingly) reinforces the author’s world-view– or, at least, the hero’s.

Typical of the book’s weaker scenes: the one (straw) man who seriously objects to the policies he’s agreed to enforce does something monumentally stupid and dies with grotesque heavy-handedness. However, Scalzi permits his characters to acknowledge that the man had a point, however misguided his attempts to make it may have been.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6.

Imagery: 4/6. Our hero hails from a town that recalls uncannily mid-century North America, which he leaves for a spectacular adventures with the Colonial Defense Force. Scalzi communicates the excitement, especially in the final third. I wish he had given us a stronger sense of how things look and feel.

Story: 5/6.

Characterization: 4/6 Save for the protagonist, the characters tend to be types. John Perry also feels as though he should have greater insight after seventy-five years. Scalzi gains points, however, for his handling of three elements: the alien Consu, the Brainpal interaction, and the characterization of Jane. These have been addressed under “High Points.”

Emotional Response: 5/6.

Editing: 4/6.

Overall score: 5/6. Once Scalzi gets to his story, he keeps it interesting, and he recaptures a sense of Golden Age SF without merely writing pastiche.

In total, Old Man’s War receives 30/42.

Notes

Scalzi and the reviewer had some differences of opinion at our Penguicon 6.0 panel.