A lot of readers may note the similarities between John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (and to a lesser extent Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War). But while those comparisons are certainly appropriate, they shouldn’t take anything away from the fact that Scalzi’s unique take on military service in the future is an incredibly mature (pun intended) novel that sparkles with enough inventiveness and gusto to be be considered a classic in its own right.
At turns funny, touching, horrifying, and sad, it manages to paint a picture of mankind’s place in the universe that is both strikingly original and frighteningly plausible. Yes, like the two novels mentioned above, it follows a solider in the future from fresh recruit to seasoned veteran. Yes, it touches on the absurdity and futility of fighting continuous wars against enemies we hardly understand. But it also offers a number of fresh new ideas and perspectives that help set it apart from most other military science fiction currently being written.
Old Man’s War Summary
John Perry is a retired advertising copywriter whose wife passed away 10 years prior. At the ripe old age of 75, his choices are either to slowly die alone on the backwater world of Earth or… join the army! Fearing the inevitable decline of old age and starting to feel the aches and pains of a body nearly used up, he opts to join the Colonial Defense Forces, mankind’s military and political ambassador to the rest of the galaxy. As Perry is put through a condensed form of boot camp, we learn that the galaxy is full of other life forms, each of which are competing for the limited supply of habitable worlds.
In order to ensure the future of humanity and prevent hostiles races from muscling us out of our share of the galactic real estate, the CDF is forced to wage war on multiple fronts against multiple enemies; sometimes working to protect human colonies from invasion, other times assaulting and overtaking enemy colonies. To make matters even more complicated, the variety of potential enemy combatants and war zones are so varied that it makes it nearly impossible for soldiers to learn and adapt from one battle to the next.
So why would they want 75 year-olds? Aren’t soldiers supposed to be young and strong? It turns out that the state of their current body isn’t an issue, because their consciousnesses are going to be transferred into a completely new, highly modified version of their 20 year old selves (taken from their own DNA). Not only are their new bodies younger and in better shape than they ever were in real life, they have also been heavily modified by the latest in CDF technology to enhance their fighting ability.
From their new nanotech “smartblood” that carries more oxygen and coagulates quicker, to their BrainPal, a neural interface that allows them to access data and communicate silently with their fellow soldiers, everything about their new bodies has been designed to maximize their chance of survival. Speaking of which, because of the variety and fierceness of their enemies, the survival rate of CDF soldiers after two years of service is dismal.
That still leaves the question of why they value older citizens to receive these new super-bodies. The answer to that is explained to Perry in boot camp. Basically, since the CDF are fighting to protect the future of humanity, they need soldiers who have a strong connection to Earth and who have, over the course of their lives, developed the wisdom and compassion that comes with having loved someone other than themselves (children, grandchildren, etc).
Young soldiers are too self-centered and myopic to understand the importance of the mission, and don’t have the same sense of loyalty and service to their own race. But as Perry starts participating in more battles and killing more and more faceless (and sometimes poorly armed) enemies, he starts to question his own loyalty in the face of what seems like such senseless violence. With each successive battle, he senses himself becoming less and less human; his connection to Earth and his former life fading in the background. But an unexpected meeting with someone from his previous life helps change all that.
Old Man’s War Review
One of the underlying themes of Old Man’s War is the tenuous connection between one’s body and mind and how that affects your personal sense of self and identify. How much does having a new body change who you are and how you think of yourself? What is it about someone that makes them intrinsically human?
Thankfully, the book doesn’t try to come to a specific conclusion or make a grand statement to answer those questions. But it does give us enough to think about so that we care about John Perry’s situation and the conflicting emotions that he has to deal with. In addition to the fun new technology and big moral questions that the book introduces, it also features some of the best dialogue, sharpest humor, and efficient writing that I can remember reading in a Sci-Fi novel. Most novelists in the genre aren’t exactly know for their style, so it’s refreshing to see a writer who has an ear for how people actually speak.
So if you’re looking for a Sci-Fi novel with substance AND style to spare, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. And whether you’re old or young, you won’t be disappointed.
Buy Old Man’s War