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Old School Wednesdays Joint Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

Old School Wednesdays Final

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In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.

This month, we kick start our EPIC Old Man’s War Review Extravaganza with a joint review of book 1, Old Man’s War

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Author: John Scalzi

Genre: Military science fiction

Publisher: Tor
Publication date: First published 2005
Paperback: 362 pages

John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce– and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine–and what he will become is far stranger.

Stand alone or series: First book in the Old Man’s War series

How did we get this book: Bought

Why did we read this book: We love Scalzi’s online presence and have been meaning to read his oeuvre ASAP. We finally decided that 2017 was The Year of Scalzi. We’ll be posting reviews of the entire series over the next few months.

Format (e- or p-): Print

Review:

Old Man's War

Ana’s Take:

First published in 2005, Old Man’s War is John Scalzi’s debut military science fiction novel, and the second of the author’s work I read (the first was Lock In). It pays homage to traditional science fiction, specifically to works such as Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. If you follow the blog’s reviews, you probably know where I stand with Robert Heinlein – and I am so very glad to report that Old Man’s War did not make me want to punch things. Not that I expected I would, knowing Scalzi’s non-fiction from Whatever and his Twitter account.

John Perry turns 75 and on that day he does two things: visit his beloved wife’s grave and joins the army. In this future, humanity is not only traveling around space but also colonising planets far away. The only problem is that there is competition: other aliens races also strive to colonise viable planets and are willing to fight for it. Thus, Earth needs an army willing to carry out orders far away and die for it. That army – and its resources – are in the hands of the Machiavellian, mysterious, all-powerful Colonial Defence Force. The CDF not only have the resources to keep on fighting, they also have the scientific knowledge to make it so – but without sharing their secrets. All that people on Earth know is that anyone can join the army as soon as they turn 75, knowing it’s a one-way trip and that they will never come back to Earth.

This is how John Perry ends up in a cloned body: his own, but much younger, green and with all sorts of unexpected… updates that effectively turn him into a super-soldier. Now he just needs to survive at least two years in the front.

Old Man’s War proved to be exactly what I was hoping for: a fun romp around space, following John from his first steps into his new life, saying good bye to everything he has ever known, carrying with him only his love for his wife and a thirst for exploration. I say “fun” but Old Man’s War is in fact, a rather bloody, no-punches-pulled affair. In addition, the novel doesn’t veer away from a thinky thread that not only examines what it means to be human in the context of profound genetic modifications but also how can one remain human when they are de facto killing machines. Those struggles as well as the struggles of the human race as a whole in their exploration of deep space are excellently deployed here. Bonus for the last-minute Oh-no-they-didn’t twist with a side of super-cool oh-shit-there-is-a-multiverse.

My main criticism – if we can call it that – is that this is a plot-heavy, characterisation-lite novel. I liked the characters well enough: John is a pleasant chap, I liked that most of his friends – the old farts – are all older, mature, experienced characters. I especially enjoyed the characters from the ghost brigades and the juxtaposition of their inexperience as people and their experience as soldiers. But because the characterisation is so light, whenever there was a loss, I didn’t feel it as deeply as I should have. In other words: I wanted more from these characters. That’s… a good thing, even if a little frustrating for someone who reads primarily for characters.

Nevertheless: I loved it, can’t wait to continue reading the series. Bring on The Ghost Brigades.

Thea’s Take:

Oh, Old Man’s War. It has been years since I’ve read you, and I’m so happy to report that it still holds all of its luster and awesomeness.

Allow me to provide some context: I’ve read this book before, although it’s the only book in the series that I’ve read. I’ve also read Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts, and of course am a fan of his nonfiction writings online and via social media. But for whatever reason–chalk it up to busy review schedules, too many new releases, getting distracted, whatever–I never picked up the rest of this series.

Enter 2017, and my joy at rereading Old Man’s War and the perfect excuse to read ALL THE BOOKS.

There. Context: done.

So how does the story hold up? I think Ana sums it up best: this is a plot-heavy, characterization-lite novel. And I have absolutely no problem with that–I like my action swashbuckling and helter-skelter paced. I like glorious reveals and twists, and high-concept, big screen scifi–and if characterization isn’t the strongest suit in this setup, I’m ok with that.

The things that stand out to me the most in this reread are thus:

  • I remain intensely impressed at the underlying conceit of the series and the world; where seniors are recruited by the Colonial Defense Forces upon their seventy-fifth birthdays. You get soldiers with experience and wisdom, but the genetically modified bodies of bonafide killing machines. This is so cool, so smart, and examined in several critical ways over the course of the novel. I dig it.
  • Aliens are truly, believably alien here, and there isn’t enough viable space in the universe to satisfy all their needs. Hence, the CDF and the ongoing war.
  • The overall tone of the book, and its retrospective approach, is surprisingly somber. The main character, John, has a sense of humor, but reflects quite a bit on what it means to be human and how one can be human with the modifications they’ve agreed to, the things they’ve had to do.

Yeah, there are issues, too. The characterization is light, and it’s a little frustrating how easily and almost effortlessly the protagonist bests everyone and everything in his path.

HOWEVER. These are minor drawbacks in what remains, to me, an awesome military science fiction space opera.

I AM SO PUMPED FOR BOOK 2.

Rating:

Ana: 8 – Excellent

Thea: 8 – Excellent

The EPIC Old Man’s War Series by John Scalzi Reading

The rest of the series schedule is below! Join us!

The Ghost Brigades – February 22

The Last Colony – March 22

Zoe’s Tale – April 26

The Human Division – May 24

The End of All Things – June 21

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4 Comments

  • tee+d
    January 26, 2017 at 1:01 pm

    Oooh. I need to reread these, and I never did get to Zoe’s War, though I own it. Good excuse to read along!

  • Lisa
    January 26, 2017 at 5:46 pm

    Oooh, I love this book/series – Old Man’s War was the first SF book I ever reviewed! (Don’t look, it’s probably terribly written.) I’ve read all but Zoe’s Tale; it’s tempting to pick it up in April now! Will be reading these reviews for sure.

  • Anonymous
    February 11, 2017 at 8:32 am

    It’s the same with me, read Old Man’s War two years ago and loved it (even was the best one I read in 2015) but haven’t continued the series, yet

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