I’m delaying my game-system flavor post again due to overexcitement. You see, I finished Old Man’s War yesterday and I just had to share my thoughts with you. In case you were wondering, I also started Old Man’s War yesterday. What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been better put by Cory Doctorow and Ken MacLeod? I suppose I’ll start with, “I was silly not to read this ages ago, because it’s really damn good.”
Seriously, this book has been sitting on my reading list for years, ever since my brother Nate suggested that I should read it soon after it came out in 2005. At the time, I had no idea who John Scalzi was or why I should like his work, and the title and concept simply didn’t grab me. Apart from the prodigious numbers of recommendations I had received telling me to read the book (and my growing infatuation with Scalzi’s writing), not that much had changed as of yesterday. Then I opened the book and read the first few pages, and boom, I was gone.
I really should have expected that something like this would happen again, given how I felt about Agent to the Stars and Redshirts, but I was once more taken by surprise and pulled right into the deep end. I barely came up for air, and dove through the book in the course of several hours. The short take? Read it. My more considered opinion? Read on…
My more considered opinion is that you should still read it, because if you’ve liked any other Scalzi books you’ll probably like this one too. And please don’t make fun of me for recommending a book that you’ve already read, I’m quite aware that I’m a good ways behind the times with this book. But let’s talk about what Scalzi does in this book that I find so admirable and fascinating.
First off, something that won’t spoil any details of the book: I’m impressed (again) by how quickly Scalzi is able to make characters that feel believable, even with only a brief bit of time given over to them. It’s less that he creates deeply real people and more that he gives us a glimpse in passing that is so totally convincing that we fill in the rest of the details ourselves. Making a convincing character is a fine art, and I admire Scalzi’s ability to do it in the briefest of spaces.
Another thing that shouldn’t spoil too much: this is an excellent heir to the legacy of Starship Troopers, and while I would still suggest that you read Heinlein’s original I am of the opinion that Old Man’s War surpasses it quite handily. Furthermore, Doctorow was right to compare it to The Forever War, as it reads like some odd combination of Heinlein and Haldeman. Unlike Heinlein’s idealistic portrayal of a militarized republic, it doesn’t read like a polemic. Perhaps because of that, I think it (much like The Forever War) does a better job of telling a story about human beings and the meaning of being human in the face of relentless trauma. Does the narrator lead something like a charmed life, as in Heinlein’s original? Well, yes, but that’s simply par for the course. It’s not easy to replace a first person narrator.
Ok, this last one may actually spoil some parts of the book. It will also spoil parts of Redshirts. I don’t think it will surprise you very much, but I might as well warn you that
*Here There Be SPOILERS*
Meaningful death is clearly something that Scalzi has had on his mind for a while. It was central to Redshirts, and while Scalzi doesn’t explicitly make a big deal of it here, it still comes up again and again. It’s not that people don’t die in meaningless and painful ways, but that we always feel those deaths effect the narrator. And therefore, they also effect us. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve managed to do anything like the same sort of justice to my (dead) characters, and I admire Scalzi’s ability to let each death, however meaningless it may be, actually reach out and touch the characters and thus the reader. Maybe I’m just a big softie, but that seems like a really worthwhile piece of the story and world. It both feels more real and really drives home the points that Scalzi makes about what it means to be human.
*Thus Endeth The SPOILERS*
If you haven’t already decided that you’re going to read this book, I strongly encourage you to reconsider. It will go by in a flash, and you’ll be glad to have read it. Go ahead, give it a try.