Old Man’s War introduces itself with some of the best opening lines I’ve ever read in a novel: “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”
So simple, so compelling. Further, it points us to the two great themes that dominate this tale – that of love and that of war. Far from being a lightweight interstellar shoot ‘em up, Old Man’s War has the heart and brain of a modern classic. It’s not just a good read – it’s a great one.
In Scalzi’s futuristic world, the good news is that mankind finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets suitable for human habitation are few – and our claim to those few is violently challenged by other alien races. So we hit back: for the sake of the old world, Earth, and for the sake of new ones. This war has been going on for decades, and signs of a reprieve are nowhere to be seen.
Back on Earth itself, most of our resources are in the hands of the CDF (Colonial Defense Force). Once you reach retirement age, you can join up with the CDF. Youngsters aren’t wanted; people who carry a lifetime worth of experience are. If you sign up, you’ll be whisked off Earth and never permitted to return. You’ll serve at least two years on the front. If you survive, you’ll be given a homestead of your own, on one of the newly colonized planets you helped fight for. If you survive.
“In this room right now there are 1,022 recruits,” Lieutenant Colonal Higges said. “Two year from today, 400 of you will be dead.”
Higgee stood in the front of the theater, again. “In the third year,” he continued, “another 100 of you will die. Another 150 in years four and five. After ten years – and yes, recruits, you will most likely be required to serve a full ten years – 750 of you will have been killed in the line of duty. Three-quarters of you, gone. These have been the survival statistics – not just for the last ten or twenty years, but for the over two hundred years the Colonial Defense Force has been active.”
There was dead silence.
“I know what you’re thinking right now, because I was thinking it when I was in your place,” Lieutenant Colonel Higgee said. “You’re thinking – what the hell am I doing here? This guy is telling me I’m going to be dead in ten years! But remember that back home, you most likely would have been dead in ten years, too – frail and old, dying a useless death. You may die in the Colonial Defense Forces. You probably will die in the Colonial Defense Forces. But your death will not be a useless one. You’ll have died to keep humanity alive in our universe.” (p. 107-108)
John Perry (the old man of the title) is signing up – survival statistics be darned. Of what awaits him he has only a vague idea. As he soon discovers, fighting the real fight, light-years from his home planet, is far more brutal and life-altering than he could ever have imagined. So…
… who wants to kill some aliens?
While casting about for a punchy way to describe this book, the first thing that sprang to mind was a comparison to Pixar’s UP. No joke. Think about it. In UP, the elderly Carl Fredericksen mourns the death of his beloved wife, Ellie, and thereafter embarks on an adventure. In Old Man’s War, John Perry (also elderly and also a widower) sets out on his own adventure in the aftermath of his wife’s passing.
Obviously, we’re talking about two different kinds of adventuring here – rescuing exotic birds vs. blowing away alien beasties – but the situational similarity is neat to consider, amiright?
(Don’t take that the wrong way, by the by: Old Man’s War is intended for adults. It is most emphatically not a candidate for family read-aloud time.)
Lovers of military sci-fi, take note: Old Man’s War is a ripping yarn that pays homage to the likes of Starship Troopers and The Forever War. This isn’t to say it’s a recycling of those works (quite the contrary), but the influence is clear. What raises this story above many of its peers is the deeply human element. The soldiers here aren’t just so much cannon-fodder, and Scalzi refuses to let the action – as thrilling as it is – get in the way of good old fashioned character development.
The story itself is brilliantly wrought, giving a tip of the space helmet to greats such as Heinlein while firmly establishing its own uniqueness. As a reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly put it, “This virtuoso debut pays tribute to SF’s past while showing that well-worn tropes still can have real zip when they’re approached with ingenuity.”
This is what I call a triumph.
Oh, and Santa – if you’re reading this, pay real close attention to this next bit: I want a CDF MP-35 for Christmas. Seriously. Get me one, and I’ll let you live.
Enjoyed the review? Pick up a copy yourself and support ItB:
Old Man's War — John Scalzi, $7.19