Old Man's War was the first novel by author John Scalzi1, a work of science fiction which was a finalist for 2005's Hugo Award for Best Novel. Old Man's War postulates a galaxy populated by many different intelligent races, in direct and violent competition for the resources of the relatively scarce habitable planets. Humans are part of this competition, having established a number of colonies but by no means owning a secure empire or sole claim to a specific region of space. As such humanity relies on the Colonial Defense Force (CDF), a space going navy which our protagonist joins and becomes a space going marine.

The story arc follows the protagonist, retired writer John Perry, from his recruitment and training through his deployment in his first battle to his key role in a climactic major engagement. If this sounds like a retelling of Heinlein's Starship Troopers2, it is—which Scalzi himself acknowledges. It's a brilliant retelling, very much an update for the beginning of the 21st century. Gone are the mechanized battlesuits of the novel, replaced by nanotechnology and genetic modification. Gone too are the polemics of ST, with "serve in the military to earn citizenship" replaced by a compelling idea. The CDF recruits only 75-year-olds from Earth into its service. Reaching the end of their natural life span on Earth, with only death to look forward to, the CDF leverages the decades of wisdom and experience in Earth's seniors. It cures the physical woes of its aged recruits and sends them into battle with the promise of eventually mustering out into a second life in the human colonies.

Of course, in a universe filled with intelligent, hostile life forms who want those same colonies, surviving your tour is no small feat. After a stint in basic training (which is again at once an homage to and an update of ST, complete with seamless exposition) Perry meets a variety of interesting aliens. And, of course, kills them. As he moves from one conflict to another and rises in the ranks, we learn more about the deeper motivations of some alien races and the hidden complexities of the CDF's mission.

The story uses the time honoured mechanism of a character thrust into a new situation about which he knows nothing, learning as he goes so that the moments of exposition don't seem forced. Trained as most SF readers are, we can also accept certain premises such as the interstellar travel (the 'skip drive') without qualm. The key plot elements such as the nanotech seem like reasonable extrapolations from today's technology. As readers, we can readily imagine ourselves as John Perry, setting off at 75 to begin a second life.

Old Man's War falls into the loose sub genre of 'military SF' without glorying overmuch in the mayhem of combat itself. The story is well balanced between plot and character, moving forward at a good pace without neglecting dialog and character relationships. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, blasting through most of its 311 pages in a long day waiting about at the doctor's office, even getting a laugh-out-loud moment at the wrong time and place (in the recovery area, where unexpected hilarity is looked upon somewhat askance).

Old Man's War was followed by the The Ghost Brigades (2006) and The Last Colony (2007).

  1. An established Internet presence, whose popular blog at http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/ betrays a certain e2 sensibility. Not least because he apparently tapes bacon to his cat.
  2. Not the movie version of Starship Troopers, which omitted key elements of the novel in order to splatter space marines and alien bugs messily about the screen. As an aside, the animated Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles is more true to the book.

War, waged by an army of old people

  • Full title: Old man's war
  • Author: John Scalzi
  • Year: 2005
  • ISBN-13: 9780765309402
  • Amazon rating at the moment of writing this review: 4.4 out of 5 (1,325 reviews)

What?

Old man's war is a science fiction novel following the life of John Perry after his 75th birthday, set in a somewhat distant future where mankind has started colonization of other planets and wages war against other species for them.

The book is the first of a series, the other ones being, in order, The Ghost Brigades (2006), The Last Colony (2007), Zoe's Tale (2008), The Human Division (2013) and The End of all things (scheduled for 2015).

Tell me more

We get to meet John Perry, a regular American, on his 75th birthday. On that day, according to his own recollection, he did two things: visit his wife's grave and enlist in the Army.

This Army, however is not of the usual kind. Its actual name is the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF), which is in charge of waging war with other intelligent species for habitable planets. The usual procedure for enlisting to the CDF entails signing up for it on your 65th birthday and then submitting yourself for it ten years later.

Rumor is, the CDF has found some way of reversing aging. Otherwise, how are they waging war with old men and women? However, the actual procedures of the CDF are a mystery to the public at large and the only way to figure them out is to sign up with them.

John Perry decides that life has nothing left for him on Earth and willingly submits himself to the CDF. The papers tell him that, in order to be a CDF recruit, he must be declared legally dead on Earth, with all its legal implications; he must abandon any and all religious or spiritual ideologies that could restrain him from taking part in acts of violence and he will even submit his body and accept anything and everything the CDF might want to do with it.

Perry gets on the vessel that will take him and all the recruits to their initial training and quickly makes some friends. The following days are filled with strange tests, from extremely simple arithmetic to assessment of anger triggers. Then, on the last day of tests, Perry finds an almost exact replica of his body lying in the bed next to his. The adventure begins here...

What do you think, Andy?

John Scalzi has a really great idea here. The book has the familiarity of war stories, following in the footsteps of a single soldier, while discovering almost literally the universe at large, an unknown for everyone including our characters. He manages to be funny and exciting when the plot calls for it, without falling too much into any one of the usual "comedy"or "war story" clichés.

The book does make a few… interesting jumps between chapters. Although this might strike odd at first, in hindsight they are necessary to tell the tale of Perry without extending the book unnecesarily. An incidental effect of these jumps is that almost every secondary character is thinner than I like and their individual effects on the overall story are very localized but hardly impacting in the plot as a whole.

Maybe this was made intentionally to focus on the tale of a Lone Soldier? I prefer to think so, although the trope could've been established better as someone who really grieves for loss.

Overall, it's a well written story, an interesting concept and a good ending, although it's not among my favorites in science fiction.

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