Old Man’s War is one of the many books that’s been on my ever-expanding list of books I can never find second hand. I’ve heard and read a lot of good things about it, most comparing it favorably to Robert Heinlein’s seminal sci-fi classic, Starship Troopers. Comparisons like this generally do poor service to the work and the reader. But they are often made, causing fans of the former to buy the latter. This is especially true of us sad sci-fi readers who seem to always be looking for a book that will rouse the same feelings of joy, excitement and discovery as when we first read Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, or the other old masters who made us realize that good science fiction could also be good literature.
The story begins with, as you might have gleaned from the title, an old man. We meet out intrepid protagonist, John Perry, just as he turns 75. In this unspecified but not-too-distant future, old folks can enroll in the Colonial Defense Forces, who will train them as soldiers to defend interstellar human colonies from the nasties of the universe. Little is known about the CDF on Earth, but there is speculation that they are able to stop or possibly reverse the aging process– why else would they recruit a bunch of old farts to fight their battles?
So, in the selfless pursuit of a longer life, many septuagenarians join CDF rather than face the inevitable on Earth. There are a few caveats– once you join CDF and ship out, you are, for all legal purposes, dead to everyone on Earth. You will never be able to return. You have to serve for at least two years, possibly ten. But at the end, you’ll get your own stake on one of the new colonies and be a hero. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the CDF isn’t too keen to share it’s new-found and hard-won technological advances with the Earth-bound. We learn right away that Perry’s wife has been dead awhile and, though he has a son, they don’t seem particularly close. So, like the young adults in Heinlein’s novel, Perry and about a thousand fellow seniors ship out to the great beyond.
The first part of the novel moves about like its inhabitants. It reads like eavesdropping on retirement center conversations. Except here, the spry gang of recruits spends a lot of time speculating on the many ways the CDF is going to make improvements to their decrepit bodies. Just as it’s beginning to wear a bit thin, things pick up when we discover exactly what CDF has in store. There’s no pleasant gene therapy or restoration of old bones and tissues. The oldsters have their minds transplanted into new and better bodies, each equipped with the latest advances in technology such as Smart Blood and a BrainPal, which is basically like having the most badass computer accessible in your head. Scalzi’s dialogue is full of tired sarcasm. So if you’re the type of reader who would get annoyed when Perry cleverly names his BrainPal “Asshole,” this is not going to be your kind of book.
From here on out, it’s basically the story of training recruits with spectacularly awesome bodies and tech and then fighting aliens of all sorts. The only little bit of added depth is that because our protagonists are older and wiser, they understand they are fighting for humanity’s manifest destiny. Or something like that. I can’t say for sure because I started losing interest about halfway through. The biggest problem for me was that I just wasn’t all that into John Perry. It seems like Scalzi wants him to play as a latter-day Clint Eastwood character– a wise, world-weary, loner with a tough exterior and a heart of gold. But I couldn’t buy in. I get that he’s supposed to represent the every man going through a dynamic change just as he thought his life had run its course. I just didn’t find him very compelling.
The best science fiction does one of two things. The first kind introduces us to worlds and creatures and ideas that are completely new, yet exciting because they are plausible. You know, the science-y part of science fiction. The second kind forces us to examine what it means to be human in the present and what being a human could be like in the future. Ideally, the absolute best sci-fi does both. Old Man’s War falls more into the second camp because the ideas are not all that new. But even what it has to say about being human isn’t all that refreshing or insightful. But worst part for me was, by the end of the penultimate chapter, I knew exactly how it was going to end. To my mind, the worst thing science fiction can be is predictable.
After my last two epic audiobook listens, this one was really short. As much as I thought the writing was OK, I thought the performance by narrator William Durfis was sub par. His biggest failing is that he attempts to give all the characters distinct voices, but they all sound the same. When there are conversations taking place, this shortcoming is woefully evident. Maybe I’m spoiled by excellent performances I’ve heard recently by readers Nick Podehl and MacLeod Andrews, but I can’t help but feel the whole affair would have been at least a smidge more compelling if the narrator were better.
I’d say because of its brevity and the fair to middling narration, you may be better off actually reading this one.