Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Review: Old Man's War

John Scalzi's novel, Old Man's War starts out somewhat underwhelming. It is a simple collection of sentences:

I did two things on my seventh-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army.
But from that simple beginning, Mr. Scalzi has managed to spin a gripping tale of an old man who has joined the Colonial Defense Force (CDF). The group responsible for protecting humanity from the hundreds, if not thousands, of other races out there bent on destroying us - or all to often, eating us. With those nineteen words, he provides the entire premise of the book. It's a story of a 75 year old, fighting what are effectively monsters and missing his wife. I can't lie, my initial thought was that that was not a strong enough premise to carry the book. That reading about a 75 year old in an army unit was going to be highly... well boring.

But I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong.

The main protagonist in the book is a geriatric named John Perry. He's an everyman in the traditional sense of the word. There is nothing spectacular or amazing about him. He is not a genius. He's not super-strong. He's simply a man, who has lived a long, normal life. He's just an ordinary guy who has done the ordinary things of daily living.

And it is those characteristics that make him such a joy to read about as his life changes from that simple, straight-forward existence that he had lived on Earth to the fighting life of a CDF soldier.

Beyond the main protagonist (and POV character) Scalzi has a host of secondary characters that flitter in and out of the narrative. All are brought in by the same mechanism - the turnover of army life, but they all go out in various ways. Everything from death, to simply being transferred to a different division of the CDF. These secondary characters are all well-thought out and three-dimensional, nearly as much as the main protagonist himself.

And then there's Asshole.

While not necessary a character in and of itself (well - Asshole is as much as a character as Wilson was in the movie Castaway, if not more of one), Asshole is the name John gives the computer that's hardwired into his head. But what amused me the most is that instead of some arcane collection of letters and numbers or a stunningly complex designator for the machine, it's something innately simple and beautiful. It's called a BrainPal. And I must admit, the things he thought up to call the technology in his book are some of the best that I've stumbled across in my years of reading SciFi.

The plot is relatively straight-forward, and a staple scenario of military-based SciFi, and could be considered straight out of a Heinlein novel. In fact, Heinlein did this plot. The basics are - boy joins the army, goes through training and then goes out to defend humanity. There's nothing wrong with that. It's a great premise. A story is not deemed good or bad on the strength of the underlying plot - it's deemed good or bad based on the execution of that underlying plot. And Mr. Scalzi executed his plot brilliantly. I'm not going to go into details as most of what I would bring up would be spoilers, but this was probably the best implementation of this particular plot that I've read since Starship Troopers.

The settings are myriad and diverse, everything from a space elevator to an alien world which holds a deadly mold-like substance. The sheer range of creatures and beings which populate these worlds are great and wonderful. My favorite part of these is the way that the trainees are showed that Earth-specific anthropomorphism would get them all killed. Basically, ugly and nasty looking is not synonymous with evil in this universe. And I like that. A lot.

The novel was written from a first-person POV (again, one of the best I've read since Starship Troopers), and my personal favorite thing about it was that there were no glaring typographical or grammatical errors. And that's something I appreciate. It shows a true love for the craft on the part of both Mr. Scalzi and the editor he has hiding behind the scenes. Beyond that, the wording, the descriptions and just how the text flows is wonderfully done as well. The story progresses at a fast pace, but one which doesn't leave the reader behind wondering what happened. Descriptions tell you just what you need to know to understand what the character is going through and don't bog you down with pointless trivia - which is something that can happen in speculative or fantasy fiction. Especially when they're the first of a series.

Theme-wise, despite the fact that they carry similar plot structures, this is not Heinlein's Starship Troopers. This story is not a jab at socialist policies and concepts. This is a story about a human being as he fights for his own humanity while placed in a situation where he must question it. It touches core concepts of that question - what makes us human. Is it how we treat others? Is it our actions? Our DNA maybe? Or is it just a bit of shared experience? Those are the questions asked of the reader, and which the protagonist answers for himself. It is a journey similar to the one found in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but without the overt cynicism and darkness of that work. I like it, and I like how he defines humanity for the characters.

Overall I can't help but recommend this novel. It is a fundamentally fun book to read. I checked the novel out of the library on a whim (I was there getting A Canticle for Liebowitz and I saw a book set later in this series on the New Releases shelves and since I've been reading Mr. Scalzi's blog for a while I thought I should pick up his book, so I went to the stacks and grabbed it). I liked it so much that I now plan on purchasing the book when I get the chance to do so, as it is a novel that I want on my shelves sitting next to my Heinlein novels.

I give it a 4 out of 4.


RJ Peters said...

I've read Scalzi's blog a time or two, but never read one of his books. Good review and now I've definitely got this on my list of things to check out when I get a chance.

Stephen Wrighton said...

Thanks! Frankly, I can't recommend Old Man's War enough. It's a really great read. Also, he provided an earlier novel as a free download as part of IPST day (the link is on his blog). I've not read that story yet, but I hope to get around to it soon.

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