Review: “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi
Having finally read Robert Heinlein’s pivotal Starship Troopers for the first time this year, I’ve been starving for more good military sci-fi novels. Heinlein’s influential story has inspired movies and huge gaming franchises like Halo and Starcraft and especially books, of course. John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War joins the ranks not only as an ode to its forebearer, but a successful successor to its legacy, mixing in action, humor, grief, and twists to create a fun, thrilling, and satisfying story.
Old Man’s War follows the tale of 75 year old John Perry, who did two things on his birthday: visit the grave of his wife, and join the army. You see, there are other planets out there, there is life out there… But more often than not those other lifeforms are fighting to secure that galactic real estate for themselves, to the death, normally. The CDF–Colonial Defense Force–are looking for recruits: but they don’t want young, inexperienced 20-somethings. They want near-octogenerians like Perry.
Scalzi has created a unique premise, one that works well within the foundations of Heinlein’s “slice of life” approach to Starship Troopers‘ narrative. Perry is an instantly likeable character: easy to read, understand, and enjoy, combining the wit and sarcasm of an near-eighty year old man with the awe and wonder of a young student abroad. Equally enjoyable are the friends Perry makes during his training–affectionately self-titled the “Old Farts”–other recruits that prove Scalzi is as adept at humor and dialogue as he is on plot. The Old Farts are a treat to experience, part Golden Girls and part Friends, but they also lend to a jarring tonal shift meant to reinforce the idea that these are soldiers being sent to war. Because all too soon, the good times are over, and these recruits do go to war. Brutally.
Scalzi’s Old Man’s War pay homages to Heinlein’s Starship Troopersin more than just plot and genre, but in the message: the horrors of war are terrifying, awful, but soldiers still push on. Once Perry is shipped out to war, he very quickly encounters death, loss, and more death. Each battle comes with a certain amount of peril to balance out the levity; each scene of lighthearted reflection occasionally mirrored by a scene of remorse or despair. Some of these deaths you may see coming a galaxy away, but Scalzi does attempt to throw in twists that turn typical genre conventions on their head. There is also at least one particular death that is so beautifully done that Scalzi turns the terror of death into poetry, something beautiful or sad and liberating all at once. Old Man’s War doesn’t just rely on death, though:
for example, the last third of the book provides a huge twist that really takes the narrative into an unexpected direction, and this constant and strategic use of surprises keep the story moving swiftly.
Old Man’s War isn’t perfect: as unpredictable as certain twists may be later in the book, some of the earlier exposition isn’t as surprising. But overall Scalzi creates a hugely satisfying blend of adventure, suspense, and fantastic dialogue that becomes as much a love song to Heinlein as it is its own fantasticly wonderful and tragic tale.
If you’re looking for a good sci-fi book, do yourself a favor and get this. And if you’re interested in seeing more, check out his sequels and tie-ins.
Old Man’s War receives:
4.5 Medals of Valor out of 5
- Tor will serialize John Scalzi’s next Old Man’s War novel online [John Scalzi] (io9.com)
- REVIEW: “Redshirts” by John Scalzi (comicmix.com)
- John Scalzi – Redshirts (sffbookreview.wordpress.com)