Book Review: Old Man’s War (2005)

Because or maybe in spite of the number of books I read, it is a far too rare experience for one to grab me with opening paragraph. John Scalzi‘s debut novel and Hugo Award nominated Old Man’s War did just that.

The opening? “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

Aside from raising the basic question of why a 75-year-old is joining the army, the paragraph quickly summarizes the major motivations that drive John Perry, the story’s narrator: age and the death of his wife eight years before.

Perry lives in a future in which humanity has not only made it to interstellar space, it has established colonies on numerous planets. But the universe is a rather dire place. Although there are plenty of intelligent extraterrestrial races, they have little or no desire to share their home planets with man. As a result, the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) has waged a decades-long war to both protect humanity’s colonies and expand man’s reach to and control of other planets.

Earth is largely irrelevant and basically ignorant of the colonies and what the CDF does. In part to protect humanity’s home, the heavily populated Earth is an unknown hinterland and life moves on much as always. It does, though, serve as a source for CDF soldiers. The catch is the CDF doesn’t want anyone who isn’t at least 75 years old. People like Perry do not know why, other than they speculate that youth is restored to enlistees. But enlistees can never return to Earth. If they survive their mandatory two years at the front, they have the option of “reupping” or settling on a colony planet.

Thus, even at the outset, Perry and other enlistees face difficult decisions. Do you simply live out your existence on Earth subject to the ailments and maladies of age? Or do you opt for what you believe to be restoration of youth, albeit with the risk your life could end violently within weeks? Do you forever leave your family, friends and everything you have ever known with the carrot being that in two years you might be able to start over on some planet light years from Earth and of which you know absolutely nothing?

While Scalzi freely acknowledges Old Man’s War was inspired by Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, issues like these distinguish Old Man’s War from most so-called military science fiction. Scalzi is adept at making the subgenre a vehicle rather than the essence of the book.

Perry learns how 75-year-olds become CDF fighters, experiences firsthand the brutality of this war, sees and feels the effects of an extraordinary casualty rate and meets a special forces soldier who looks identical to his years-dead wife. While alone an intriguing read, these plot lines also raise thornier issues. How does the CDF’s supposed fountain of youth fit in with traditional concepts of human life and ethics? Is war and its extreme brutality inevitable or should the focus be on trying to achieve peaceful coexistence with alien races? Most important, what is it that gives us selfhood?

But don’t let all of these thoughts and ideas make you think the book is some plodding existential tome. With Perry’s personal story, the military SF aspects and enough pieces of “hard” SF (e.g., what makes travel over light years possible), Old Man’s War works equally as well for someone who just wants to read well-done, straightforward science fiction.

Yes, the opening paragraph sucked me it. But it’s Scalzi’s ability to explore all the concepts and ideas those simple sentences give rise to that kept me interested. If you can combine that feat with writing that produces such a good read, you are deserving of a Hugo Award nomination.

This man had gone to new places, met new races and exterminated them on sight.

John Scalzi, Old Man’s War

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