by John Scalzi



320pp/$12.95/January 2005

Old Man's War
Cover by John Harris

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

John Scalzi's debut novel Old Man's War clearly owes its existence to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman's The Forever War.  As with those earlier military novels, Scalzi focuses his attention on the military career of a common grunt, John Perry, in a futuristic army.

In the future depicted in Old Man's War, the Earth is a backwater, cut off from the hostile galaxy by the human-run Colonial Defense Forces.  The CDF, which only accepts septuagenarians into its service, is a technocracy unto itself, but rumors on Earth hint that they have found a way to reverse the aging process.  For this reason, if no other, many people volunteer for the service, Perry among them.

It isn't until they are off Earth, never to return, that the recruits learn the truth of the CDF when they begin their training.  Much of the novel focuses on that training, as the CDF tries to eradicate seventy-plus years of instinct from the recruits before sending them out to do battle after battle with the enemies of the human race.

Once the characters are launched into the hostile galaxy, they are separated, although able to keep in touch with their BrainPals, implanted computers which provide them with the updates they need to survive. And chances for survival are bleak.  Early in their training, the recruits are told the statistics, and as they venture forth, Scalzi has no problem killing them off in a variety of gruesome ways.  Perry, of course, as the protagonist, is one of the rare ones who continues to survive against all odds.

In fact, it is in surviving that Perry learns one of the secrets of the CDF.  In a coincidence which seems a little far-fetched, he is saved following a disastrous attack by a member of the Ghost Brigade who, in his near-death hallucinogenic state, he thinks he recognizes. This coincidence sparks the plot for the final portion of the novel. It also forms one of the weaker aspects of the novel as the curiosity exhibited throughout the book by Perry seems to take a backseat.  While is that may be a believable turn of events, Scalzi could still have explored the plot twist's implications a little more than he did.

Since Scalzi is only showing the military portion of the society, all that is seen in the novel is the the conflict between humans and other races.  There may be peaceful coexistence going on somewhere in his galaxy, but if there is, he isn't interested, at least in the current novel, in exploring that society.  Similarly, there often doesn't appear to be a real reason for battles between the races.  In some cases, there is an attempt to explain the casus belli, but other times it simply seems as if war is the natural state of things.

Despite the oftentimes depressing setting of the novel, a galaxy constantly at war and characters Scalzi has painted in sympathetic terms dying in awful ways, Old Man's War is an enjoyable novel which heralds many good things to come from the author.

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