They say the best songs often already have a tinge of familiarity to them on the first listen and this phenomenon is certainly not unique to the music industry. It’s impossible to review John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War without also mentioning the classics The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. Let’s get it out of the way now – yes, it does mix Haldeman’s ponderings on ageing in an uncaring universe with Heinlein’s militaristic musings and uberviolence. Fear not though, Old Man’s War manages to be far more than the sum of its influences.
The action gets moving on Earth a few hundred years from now. John Perry is an ageing citizen of a galactically isolated planet. Dearly missing his late wife he takes the plunge and signs up to join the CDF – Colonial Defence Force. In this era humanity has shaken off the shackles of gravity and begun to spread throughout the galaxy, colonising resource-rich planets wherever they can. For reasons not fully divulged in this book there is little to no contact between Earth and her daughter colonies. One thing is known however – these newly inhabited planets are under constant threat of destruction, enslavement or ingestion by the countless hostile races with which our region seems to be populated.
The obvious question is “Why on Earth would a pensioner defend a planet he has never set eyes on, and what possible use would he be?”. The answer forms the core of Old Man’s War, the introductory chapter to an ongoing series. The CDF, through centuries of contact with alien races, has amassed some remarkable new technology. When an Earth citizen feels they are approaching their inevitable end they are promised a new lease of life if they sign away their lives to the protection of their fellow man. Perry is swiftly whisked off-planet where he is presented with the stunning truth.
The CDF will literally grant him and all new recruits a new body – young, physically augmented, technologically enhanced and, erm, green. Should he survive 10 years of service (and 75% do not) he will be allowed to transfer once more to a more standard human frame with a full lifespan ahead of him and a guaranteed space in one of the colonies he faithfully guarded. The odds of survival initially seem grim but on the other hand these recruits were already doomed on Earth and will certainly go out in far more spectacular fashion than lying in bed, covered in their own fluids.
Scalzi wastes little time in cutting to the chase with Old Man’s War, lending the novel the feel of an effects-laden blockbuster movie. We’re treated to the usual routine of recruitment, boot camp (replete with insane drill instructor), first assignments and the inevitable transition from (literally) fresh-faced rookie to grizzled veteran. It’s not all glory though, and the story makes a point of not shying away from the horrors and losses of war; Perry spends a great deal of time in the book’s opening chapters forming close bonds with like-minded rookies, only to have them snatched into the jaws of death one by one as the story progresses. These well-timed moments of tragedy managed to keep my feet firmly on the ground through the duration.
While the story itself may tread some well-worn ground it still manages to somehow feel entirely fresh and original. Once your inner monologue stops asking “Haven’t I seen this movie before?” you’ll start being drawn in by Scalzi’s incredible talent with words. The serious aspect of the book is handled very skillfully, without allowing the action to become bogged down in emotion. At the same time this is counterbalanced with a riotously funny mood the rest of the time, as well as with a liberal smattering of hardcore space marine action. He also has a lot of fun with the science aspect, one memorable scene almost mocking the reader as during a conversation regarding the ship’s ability to skip instantaneously between points in the galaxy a knowledgeable recruit attempts to elucidate the technology for his cohort but is repeatedly forced to fall back on the mantra “…but you probably don’t have the math to understand it.” Such episodes never seem condescending, instead being reminiscent of Douglas Adams’s tongue-in-cheek attempts to explain the inexplicable.
I have to admit that I almost felt guilty at several points during Old Man’s War, mostly because you shouldn’t be able to enjoy something so effortlessly. Was I reading some kind of trash without realising it? Some kind of dressed-up airport fiction? Thankfully the answer was no, John Scalzi is not afraid to tackle big questions but is just too damn good at writing to let his audience realise that there is a lot of weight hiding behind the star wars veneer. After reading his latest novel, Redshirts (which I reviewed for Mountains Of Instead), I was afraid I would be let down by going back to his debut novel. Instead I’m struck by just how good he can be. Now to get stuck into the next three installments…