Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Somewhere in the unspecified future, humanity has reached out beyond the solar system, settling colonies wherever they can find a habitable planet. It’s the inevitable expansion of the Human Race, finally freed from its precarious position on Earth. With the new skip drive, capable of taking people vast distances in only a moment, a whole range of new and interesting worlds are open to hardy settlers willing to make new lives for themselves.
Unfortunately, there are many alien races out there with the same idea, who need worlds with similar climates and resources. And very few of them are keen on sharing with us. So, in order to protect the human race against its competitors, the Colonial Defense Force was set up – a space military whose basic mission is to deal with the alien menace by whatever means necessary.
No one on Earth has ever seen a CDF soldier. Nobody knows anything about them – how they fight, where they fight, or even whom they fight. People do know one thing, however – there’s always an opportunity to join. Protect and serve.
If you’re seventy-five years old, that is.
The CDF isn’t interested in hotheaded youths with no experience. While they have traditionally been the main component of the soldiering class, they are erratic at best, cannon fodder at worst. The CDF is looking for an entirely new type of cannon fodder, hopefully one with a better head on its shoulders. Therefore, the CDF recruits from the elderly. The theory is that once you get to be seventy-five years old, you’ve seen a bit of the world, you know how much you don’t know, and you’re less likely to be infected with the special brand of insanity that comes along with being in your late teens and early twenties.
So, on your sixty-fifth birthday, you go to the recruitment office for a routine physical and a basic description of what you’re in for. Ten years later, if you’re still around, you join up for real. There’s no turning back, though. Join the CDF and your life on Earth is over. You will be declared legally dead, and there will be no coming back to your home planet, ever.
For many people, this might be a somewhat intimidating proposition. After all, the Earth is the only home we have. But once you’re seventy-five and looking your mortality straight in the eyes, it might be a reasonable price to pay.
As for the myriad physical problems that come with being 75, well, there are ways of getting around that.
The book follows John Perry, a widower-turned-soldier as he fights for the safety of people he doesn’t know, in a universe he’s only beginning to understand. Once he begins his new career as a soldier, he discovers that, to paraphrase Sir Arthur Eddington, the universe is stranger than he can imagine. He is taken to new and interesting worlds to meet new and interesting species of intelligent life and, more often than not, to kill them. Along the way, he has to deal with new takes on the old questions that have plagued philosophers for centuries – what is identity, what is duty, and what is the function of war? Even the nature of reality itself pokes its head in to cause a little trouble. All through this, John Perry is just trying to keep his head down and get through his tour of duty – but you know it can never be that simple.
This was Scalzi’s first novel, and as first novels go it was just the kind you want to have. Exciting, funny, nominated for a Hugo and immensely popular. To say nothing of being reminiscent of Heinlein (if Heinlein had had more of a sense of humor). Not only do we have a cracking good military space adventure, but we’re introduced to a far wider universe that Scalzi will later expand upon. The “Old Man’s War Universe” is vast and exciting, and as of this writing, there have been three more books that take place in it.
With that in mind, this book is mostly exposition. While the adventure parts are adventurous, the vast majority of this book is laying down the important concepts that are necessary to understand the book and those that follow. And so we get a lot of explanation about what the CDF is and how it operates, why it needs its soldiers and how they’re prepared for battle. We’re introduced to the BrainPal ™ and SmartBlood ™ and the MP-35 Rifle, truly one of the most useful weapons ever made by man. We meet a variety of alien species – some disturbingly ugly but gentle, others utterly adorable baby-eaters, and still more who believe that murdering other life forms is an act of religious grace for which the murdered should be thankful.
Lucky for us, Scalzi chooses the most logical way to do all of this exposition – the main character is as clueless as we are. He also needs everything explained, sometimes in vivid and gruesome detail, in order to make sense of the universe in which he now works. By following John Perry through basic training and his first year in the CDF, we start to understand the basics. The rest will come in later books, and our learning curve will be somewhat accelerated.
The book manages to hit all the right notes – it’s exciting, it’s poignant and it’s funny. John Perry has been given a quick and sarcastic sense of humor, which reminds me of a lot of my friends, so I felt an immediate kinship with him. We like the people he likes, we care about the things he cares about, and we understand what it is that keeps him going, even when he’s risking his own humanity in the process. In short, John Perry is a character who is at once singularly interesting and at the same time easy to identify with. This, I must say, is a tough feat to pull off.
If you like funny, exciting, universe-scale science fiction, pick this up. If you’re interested in how our eventual coexistence with aliens might one day go, give this a read. And by all means, if you’re a fan of Robert Heinlein – and you know who you are – definitely get this book.
“If the universe is bigger and stranger than I can imagine, it’s best to meet it with an empty bladder ”
– John Perry, Old Man’s War