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Science Fiction Book Summary: Old Man’s War

May 26, 2014

John Scalzi’s science fiction novel Old Man’s War was first published in January of 2005. In that year, several notable terrorist attacks and rebellions occur, in addition to Hurricane Katrina. Pope John Paul II died. Also in that year, a fact that was frighteningly coincidental considering the topic of this novel, the United States solidified its control of Iraq following the invasion of early 2003.

Honestly, I had never heard of this book before I happened across it, and I am sorry for that. Evidently it was popular and well-received by the world. As far as I am concerned, Old Man’s War is one of the most enjoyable novels I have ever read, in any genre. I would love to read the sequels, The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony.

Without trying to spoil the plot, the premise of Scalzi’s future Earth is this: in an unspecified year of the future, probably about 200 to 300 from the present day, the human home world is advanced in technology and is coping with similar issues as now. There is the aftermath of a destructive war, where nuclear weapons were employed, there are overpopulated nations with poor infrastructure, and there are still primitive mindsets in the most industrialized nations; that means there are bigots, even in the future, and racial superiority is actually a subplot. PDAs are a constant item of use, which is not too far from today’s standards. Humankind is also quite isolated from the dangers and realities of the universe due to Quarantine Laws, and although the planet itself retains sovereignty over its people, the Colonial Union (CU) and its military arm, the Colonial Defense Force (CDF), have immense sway in matters pertinent to space. In fact, local governments have essentially no influence or knowledge of space outside the home world. Even recruiters for the CDF rarely see space outside the vicinity of Earth.

The universe is quite populated, and to hear the CDF tell it, full of rival races. According to CDF leaders, humans are weak creatures by nature and must be defended zealously by constant expansion into habitable worlds. Anything less would be forfeiture of a future where humankind would have enough living space to survive the potential, or inevitable, onslaught of rival races (presuming those races are content not to follow humans back to their original planet). Notwithstanding the Humans have alien allies—none of which are detailed in this novel in any detail—and they presumably serve our interests well. New colonies are founded anywhere possible, often despite competition with other races.

This type of interstellar policy demands the existence of a military embodied by the CDF. It is equipped with the best technology it can find in its campaigns, research, and its billets are filled with elderly volunteers. People of Earth, upon turning 65, can sign up for the CDF and have their DNA sample taken. Ten years later, usually, potential soldiers sign the enlistment form that is tantamount to death for the purposes of Earth. They absolve themselves from all legal ties, practical means to communicate with loved ones, and any chance of returning for the promise of renewed youth and a new life in the stars.

There is also the obligation to fight in whatever battles the CDF is waging for a minimum of two years, but most of the time it is a full ten (or longer if one wants to reenlist). For the chance to have a new life and fulfill a greater purpose rather than wait out placid years in peace, many men and women would jump at the chance—if their old bones let them. The majority seem excited about the possibilities, anyway.

The protagonist of Old Man’s War, John Perry, undergoes a standard entry into the war at first, granted his rebirth in a way he never expected. He makes dear friends among the other enlistees, helps humans expand into the universe, copes with the moral dilemmas this entails, and begins to undertake a journey quite unusual for most recruits.

There’s no other way to say it. I recommend you read this book. You should enjoy it, appreciate the reasons for older people being asked to serve in the CDF rather than younger ones, and it should help you grasp how complicated a greater universe can be.

For those who are interested, I have a review on this book as well. It would just be too long for both the plot summary and review, I think. I hope you go to my review and see what I think of the novel’s execution.

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