REVIEW: Old Man’s War

John Scalzi
Old Man’s War (Old Man’s War #1)
TOR Books
science fiction
April 1, 2010 (Kindle Edition)

Blurb via Goodreads:

John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce–and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine–and what he will become is far stranger.

If it wasn’t for social media and glomming my Twitter feed like the Twitter pig I am, I might never have tried this book. Or Scalzi’s work, period. It takes me way too long to branch out to new authors, it seems. I’m especially picky about male authors because most I’ve tried just have this history with me whereby I don’t feel emotionally engaged enough to their story and characters. There’ve been a few over the years, but it hasn’t escaped me that I connect more with female authored books. So I was particularly psyched to dive into this book and enjoy pretty much every minute of it. Strong characters and dialogue mark this one’s road to success.

Military scifi is pretty new for me. I tried and failed to get into the classic tale of Stormship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (though I simply must try again some day) and I really disliked in the end A Soldier’s Duty by Jean Johnson – so I’ve not had a lot of military scifi exposure. I’ve nothing much to compare Old Man’s War to that’s similar or in the same genre. What I can say for absolutely sure is that it immediately sucked me in, which I deeply need books to do in those first crucial pages and subsequent chapters.

We begin by learning John Perry’s backstry of what led up to him joining the Colonial Defense Forces. Right off we experience Perry’s dry wit, a trait that never let’s up the entire novel, despite how much his circumstances change. The CDF is a big mystery to Earth’s citizens, though an impossible-to-resist one because they only take on recruits that are seventy-five years old. The questions this raises are obvious, as is the fact that once you actually join up to serve at said ripe age, you don’t get to come back to Earth. Ever. You’re essentially declared dead there. What waits for these aged recruits is anyone’s guess. It’s the biggest gamble of their lives, to say the least.

I loved this book. Just loved about minute of it. I only marked it as a four star read for me on Goodreads, but I’m honestly having a problem remembering why at the moment. I do remember that the beginning does some really heavy foreshadowing of the CDF’s Big Secret – do they have some kind of tech that reverses the aging process? Why else take on old fogy types? There’s all kind of repeated dancing around of the topic, while the recruits basically wait in a limbo-like process, that it did get old. But there’s a scene when John finally discovers how he’s going to become fit enough again to take on war and – oh my – it’s frightening and exhilarating all at once. From there on out there’s not a redundant point or slow pace in the entire book. I kind of get why the need for all that build up. It is, after all, so curious a situation, but a little less time spent on it might have been OK with me. Then again, this is also the time when John establishes a friendship with several other recruits, who we see again and hear about from time to time, but not always happily.

I loved this book so much that I’m a little scatterbrained in figuring out how to convince you it’s just that awesomesauce. Maybe some quotes would help.

“Christ on a popsicle stick,” Master Sergeant Antonio Ruiz declared after he glared at the sixty of us in his recruit platoon, standing (we hoped) more or less at attention on the tarmac of Delta Base’s shuttleport. “We have clearly just lost the battle for the goddamn universe. I look at you people and the words “tremendously fucked” leap right out of my goddamned skull. If you’re the best the Earth has got to offer, it’s time we bend over and get a tentacle up the ass.”

That was courtesy of Perry’s first ever drill sergeant. And he’s got more:

 “From this point forward you will take your MP-35 with you everywhere you go. You will take it with you when you take a shit. You will take it with you when you shower – don’t worry about it getting wet, it will spit out anything it regards as foreign. You will take it to meals. You will sleep with it. If you somehow manage to find the time to fuck, your MP-35 damn well better have a fine view.”

Hey, it’ the military! Frank is the name of their game. Oh, and…

“….You have these bodies and weapons because they are the absolute minimum that will allow you to fight and survive out there. We didn’t want to give you these bodies, you dipshits. It’s just that if we didn’t, the human race would already be extinct.

Do you understand now? Do you finally have an idea what you’re up against? Do you?”

Oh, this is a good one, too, next up. My, but that Sergeant Ruiz was a GEM.

“Your impression is fucked, because unlike you, I have actually been out in the universe. I have seen what we’re up against. I have seen men and women that I knew personally turned into hot fucking chunks of meat that could still manage to scream…”

And last but definitely not least…

“I want to make one thing clear. I do not like, nor will I ever like, any one of you. Why? Because I know that despite the fine work of myself and my staff, you will inevitably make us all look bad. It pains me. It keeps me awake at night knowing that no matter how much I teach you, you will inevitably fail those who fight with you. The best I can do is make sure that when you go, you don’t take your whole fucking platoon down with you. That right – if you only get yourself killed, I count that as a success!”

I think I’d pay money in whatever futuristic form to actually see this guy rant. Heh!

But the point is, John’s drill sergeant completely embodies in that chapter what those soldiers are in for, what they can expect, and exactly how brutal it’s going to be. The future is a very unforgiving place, and the rest of humanity back on Earth literally has no idea what’s happening across the universe or how lucky they are that their old and infirm are guarding them and their colonies. But there comes a point in the book (and I’d begun to question this before then) when John begins to wonder if maybe there’s a different way than the deadly rat race to colonize the CDF insists is the only way. Slowly we begin to see how John himself effects a change in the CDF. Along the way we see him agonize, mourn, celebrate and grow along the way as he does his part wherever he’s sent.

The worldbuilding is interesting in that Scalzi’s come up with some incredibly imaginative worlds and races, peppering it with bits of scientific and mathematical theory as to how much of what the CDF does is possible. I thoroughly loved the worldbuilding itself while being vaguely accepting of the theoretical dialogue. And hey, thank goodness the theoreticals are given in the form of dialogue by witty and engrossing characters. Otherwise it probably would’ve been Snore Central up in that spaceship for me. As I said on my Goodreads update once, I think I vaguely get what Alan is trying to explain while also being pretty sure I don’t much at all but will try to hold on to what I think I know cuz that’s all I’ve got. At least I vaguely got it! I think. Maybe? Anyway, the point is, this is all very reader friendly. Scalzi does an excellent job of conveying his worlduilding in ways that are completely engaging for the reader and the theoretical stuff isn’t so overwhelming that you’ll feel the urge to take a hammer to your head. Bonus points, this book has ’em.

Scalzi’s writing style is snappy and fast-paced, with just the right balance of witty banter and thoughts from John and his fellow soldiers to counter the horrific realities of war on a universal scale. I love this kind of book because it offers a solace and opportunity to de-stress after feeling particularly shocked at a terrible event in the book. That’s not to say there’s no depth, either. There are very poignant moments that are surprisingly introspective and thoughtful, and gratifyingly so given the natural grave state of war. Scalzi simply does it with writing that is brief yet no less profound for that brevity. I love it when things of this nature are driven home with beautiful, concise words.

There’s a lot more I could say about this book. John takes readers on an incredible adventure of war and it’s universal repercussions, of a new human culture that, despite their advances in space, are still very much the infants of that universe with so much to learn and understand. The only other thing I can really do is to highly recommend this book, even if you’re not a fan of scifi particularly. It’s a wonderful book that explores important topics and whether you agree with anything in the book or not, what a way to be entertained in the process. I’ll definitely be continuing with the series.

Rating: Five Scoops

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  1. Oh! I read this whole series last year and really enjoyed it. It’s funny because I also gave Old Men’s War 4 stars (or a B), but I had a ball reading it! For me, it was Scalzi’s skimming of certain details during the second section of the book, but you’re absolutely right about his writing style. I love it. I found it to be easy-peasy, humorous and snappy-quick! I love that he doesn’t hit you over the head with a hammer with what he’s trying to convey either.

    Anyway, after reading Old Men’s War, I went into a Scalzi gloam and besides finishing this whole series, just went on to read some of his works. Are you planning to read his new serial related to Old Men’s War? The Human Division. The first episode B-Planet just released and it’s a good one — I’ll just say, Harry Wilson. *g*

    • Hils, I just read your review lol! I’m really excited to continue with the Old Man books, definitely. I think I already bought book 2, just gotta finish some others up first. You know how that goes. :D I’m still pumped after reading Old Man’s War because I’ve had a hard time finding scifi like it, that *is* easy to read yet complicated enough to make it worth it….if you know what I mean. That sounds contrary, but there you have it lol.

  2. Kenda, I know exactly what you mean. :) I think you’re going to love The Ghost Brigades. I read those two books one after the other and yes… they are good but not so complex you need a scientific degree. LOL! They are NOT dull, but they are good. I have Scalzi’s Red Shirts in my TBR and need to read it, the premise cracked me up. LOL!

    FYI, when next you are in the “mood” to read sci fi and want a great read that is also NOT overly taxing on the hard sci-fi , but that has excellent sci-fi atmosphere and characters (wonderful world-building) then please, please read Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey. I think you are going to love Detective Miller. Recommended especially for you. :)

    • Hils, I just about can’t type how excited I am that you rec Leviathan Wakes! I’ve had my eye on that one, but was my usual cautious self. I’ll definitely get it soon to have on hand for the next right mood. Thanks!

  3. If you’re interested in another sci-fi book that focuses on the human element while remaining interesting and readable, I’d recommend Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. It starts off a little slow, but by the end of the second chapter things become quite interesting and you won’t want to put it down.

    Disclaimer: I “reading” involved the audio book, and the narrator was quite skilled. So that may have contributed to my enjoyment.

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