Monday, March 14, 2011

Old Man's War.

I hate it when reviewer's refer to a new author as the second coming of an old, established author. Specifically, Tolkien in the case of fantasy authors or King for horror. Even so, I feel have to admit that John Scalzi has channeled everything that is great about Robert A. Heilein into his first novel, Old Man's War, and breathed a new life into it, much as he has his futuristic soldiers.

So, is John Scalzi the new Heinlein? No, I would never insult either man by pigeonholing him as such. This novel is a war story, much like Starship Troopers, that contends with man's ambivalence to war, peace, love, and what it means to be human in specific, literal terms. It is genuinely funny, humorous as only real people can be. You come to really care about those you meet, and when they inevitably die in ways that may surprise you, you know it is coming, but it still impacts. He avoids the easy pay off, and gives you something more satisfying in it's place.

One could easily declare the book predictable, even cliche if they felt so inclined. The drill seargent does, despite his protests, come to have a grudging respect for our protagonist John Perry. The common man becomes a conscientious soldier and accidentally becomes a hero due to nothing more than gumption, luck and perserverence. He even get's the girl, in a sense. It is a story told countless times since we have told stories beside the camp fire. It is the details that make this story worthwhile.

I first became aware of John Scalzi as the technical consultant to the ill fated Stargate: Universe. What failed in that show was not his fault. Consistently SG: Universe managed to get the science plausible enough to pass a layman's muster and kept it's bible consistent. The same applies here. He details enough of the science behind his skip drives as to make them interesting to the science geek, without fawning over them long enough to have the mathematicians  laugh at him. He understands the nature of humans and what would happen if a 75 year old was suddenly rebirthed in a superhuman, virile, damn fine looking body. Yes, sex. Lots of sex. He shows you aliens you would not expect, and lets you know that the his universe is one scary, strange, not at all friendly to human place.

All of these details make the same old story fun to follow, and let him get into one of those tricky concepts that we've given a new name to, but we've been playing with it a long time too. Transhumanism. For those unfamiliar with it, transhumanism is both a philosphical exploration of the potentiality of the technological transcendence of baseline humanity, and also a science fiction trope that explores the same fundamental intellectual space without so much pretention. Whether we question the nature of humanity by examining our fear of the Other, through the questioning of what happens when one of our own goes rogue, or by postulating on the effects of our minds being placed in another body, machine, or network, we are still looking for validation of our existence - and in the case of soldiers, what we fight for.

We fight for what we know and love. Whether that is a memory of a life you once lived, or what friends you have in this life, or merely those who you serve beside. In the end, no matter what technology has done to change us, we are fundamentally human and live and die like anyone else.

Sure, it's deep if you let yourself think about it. Much like Heinlein though, he doesn't drown you in speculative science or philosphy. He tells a fine war story though a narrator you can relate to. It's action packed, cool, exciting and fast paced. Things HAPPEN, and then happen some more. It doesn't bog down in down time or long contemplations of the abyss. These soldiers don't have time - because when they do it gets them killed.

I am looking forward to acquiring the next book. Incidentally, this novel is the first I have ever purchased for the Kindle. True to my nature though, I intend on seeking this out in hardback, preferably a first edition. I found reading it in electronic format fitting, as the protagonist also had to contend with a new means of acquiring information. Though I have to say, having a brain installed in your mind is probably a little more jarring than electronic paper.


  1. I am glad you liked the book and your review was very well done :)

    This book refreshed the air of Science Fiction to me and got me reading more and more of it.

  2. You should go over to The Whatever ( )and see Scalzi's take on a this question posed to him:

    "Via e-mail, Gareth asks:

    Old Man’s War was voted the best science fiction/fantasy novel of the last decade in that poll.

    Is it?

    And if not, what is?"

    You will find the answer interesting.