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Science Fiction Book Review: Old Man’s War

May 26, 2014

(For my cursory summary of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, see my other blog posted the same day with the appropriate title.)

The style of Old Man’s War is—dare I say it?—original in its presentation, despite being evocative of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and, I think, Jose Farmer (thankfully not as explicit as the latter, though). Perception of the universe through the dialogue of alien races reminds me of Ray Bradbury, as well, and I am very pleased with the combination.

The novel is rife with the kind of magical devices and advancements one would expect of a science fiction book about interstellar conquest and battle, sufficiently technical without sacrificing accessibility. Scalzi’s use of nanotechnology, jealously copyrighted improvements in medical technology and replication technology, and intuitive computer technology create a complex but understandable mesh of action and reaction for characters trying to defeat extraterrestrial soldiers as well as their internal conflicts. Simply put, it is a fun way to show how people can be altered by cloning of DNA and how the human mind can be improved by supplemental artificial intelligence. It follows the CDF would employ such methods, too, since it creates a clearly superior form of humanoid to face alien forces.

The only negative point I have about this aspect of Old Man’s War is a logistical one. There is an addition to the human mentality implanted in each infantry solder designed to improve communications, data processing, and the like. Although it cannot eliminate the risk of detection while in contact with friendly forces it can all but negate the need for verbal communication in tactical situations. As such, it seems vulnerable to electromagnetic tampering from enemy troops, and that point is never brought up. Also, this device should be capable of a critical function in every soldier as necessary.

I say this because the personality of each recruit is intact when trained and pushed to the front of the CDF’s war, as one would expect, as a distinct entity from this mechanical addition. Sometimes the individual is careless or self-destructive, and when a soldier possesses these traits, the military command structure takes steps to limit or punish the soldier risking the lives of his or her fellow soldiers—or the mission itself. The technical component added to Perry and every other volunteer apparently does not have the capacity to simply immobilize, silence, or disable the mind of a CDF soldier when he or she is consistently careless or impulsive, and it would make more sense if this computer technology was able to curtail such undisciplined behavior before it led to the injury or death of CDF resources (its soldiers included).

Regardless of this criticism, Scalzi does an excellent job of characterization, both in variety of characters and believable reactions to difficult situations. I particularly like the wry humor of Perry. His depiction of how challenges are met and overcome uses understatement as a tool, even as the realism of combat and emotional repercussion are given fair representation. Sometimes a bit more description would go well for the reader’s curiosity, but I can understand why it is not offered where I would like to see it. Such detail would slow the story with little gain. Secondary characters have adequate depth unto themselves, the appropriate level of internal consistency, and still manage to keep the universal truth of human unpredictability.

I also like the way one of the major alien enemies is understood better with careful consideration of its modes of operation. The Consu race proves to be a wily foe, and without ruining the novel for the reader here, one with surprising motivations. Exact means of communication with the Consu, as it arises, is strict but telling by its nature. In a strange way, the limited answers we read in later chapters are more revealing about the possible errors of human judgment than they are tactical situation Perry seeks to report about. The ramifications of that are mentioned elsewhere, but for the purposes of this book, not addressed beyond the scope of how individual soldiers wrestle with it unto themselves.

The way a greater awareness of other cultures arises in Old Man’s War, as well as the machinations involved in alliances serving the misunderstood ambitions of extraterrestrial civilizations, are interesting and satisfying in their almost symmetrical complexity. Scalzi weaves a masterful tapestry of the interpretation of needs, ideals, the reality of gains and losses, and the manifestation of possibilities.

All these things result from the proper application of arms as much as collective intellect. The product is very rewarding, and despite all the unhappy turns Perry witnesses, Old Man’s War ends with accomplishment and hope. It is an excellent book.

  1. I’ve been wondering about trying some Scalzi, and this makes the book sound interesting. Do you think this is the one of his books to start with?

    • I can’t rightly say if it is the best to start with or not, since it is the only book I have read by him to date. But I know it is a good book to read. I can’t imagine it’s the worst. It’s also the first of a trilogy along this story arc, according to the inside cover, so of the three it would be the first. That’s all I can say for sure.

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