Thursday, May 26, 2011

Old Man's War, a Review

On John Perry's 75th birthday, he went and visited his wife's grave and then enrolled in the army.  If Kathy were still alive, she'd be signing up, too.  In fact, almost everyone that makes it to 75 enlists, largely due to the rumors that the Colonial Defense Force have some way to make you young again.  And who would turn down a shot at being young again, or at least going out in glory, defending the planet you've called home for many years.

John Scalzi's Old Man's War is reminiscent of Starship Troopers with a little Ender's Game thrown in.  Humanity has advanced in a lot of ways, from technology that allows interstellar travel to mysterious sciences that augment the aged human body.  And while mankind still wars with themselves on Earth, largely the greater threats come from other species among the stars.  These are the enemies the CDF fights, year after year, as humanity seeks to colonize other planets and survive the harsh battles of space.

Told in a reflective, first-person narrative, there's no doubt that John Perry survives through the end of the book.  While I'm not a *huge* fan of this style (I feel it takes away a lot of tension), it nevertheless worked well with this novel.  I felt like I was listening to an old veteran tell his story of how he came to be where he is now, and what a story it was.

Perry is a likable character, from his quick wit to his deadpan humor, but its his love for his deceased wife that really shines.  And perhaps this is what sets Old Man's War apart from other military sci-fi novels (of which I have read few).  Perry's a widower that misses his wife.  Sure, he's brazened and foul-mouthed, just like the rest of the soldiers, but he's also undoubtedly a romantic.  I found this delightful and sweet, and completely understandable.  After all, the two were married for many, many years.  It's no wonder he misses her.

Old Man's War is by no means a romance novel, though.  It's light, science-fiction with some exciting battles, fascinating technology, and interesting other-worldly creatures.  The Consu, in particularly, were very cool.  Because this is a military-type book, there's plenty of colorful language and other adult activities galore, but nowhere as jarring as it could've been, and certainly not as "wordy" as Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.

I quite enjoyed Scalzi's debut novel.  It was fast-paced and thrilling, and there weren't any dull moments to be found in the relatively short book.  Yes, people died (sometimes graphically), people cussed, people sexed it up, and engaged in other vices as well, but that's to be expected in a military setting.  What was unexpected was how much fun I had reading this book.  Old Man's War has a few sequels, but its contained enough that this single volume leaves few (I can't really think of any, but to be safe) questions unanswered.

If you're wanting to read an acclaimed, heavily-decorated and lauded science-fiction novel that defies some of your expectations, check out John Scalzi's Old Man's War.  It's a quick, fun read that deserves the praise its received.


Bill said...

I'm glad you thought it was fun! I definitely agree that it's almost a "summer popcorn" kind of book but with a bit more heart. Now that I think back on the series (there are two more sequels, a "retelling" of the 3rd novel by a side character, and a diary originally written in prose) the meat of the "Old Man's War universe" really isn't in the first novel.

I suppose this may be typical of something beginning a series but since this wasn't written with that in mind (supposedly) I definitely agree it would appear the questions are all answered. Thankfully for fans of "space opera" (as some would call it) like myself the political intrigue and questions of what defines humanity really ratchet up in the second novel. The third deals considerably more with conspiracy and what the moral reaction to undesired but unavoidable situations can be.

Anyway, glad I could slide a sci-fi favorite of mine in your list and now when the movie comes out you can lament the inadequacy of film storytelling like me. :D

Carl V. said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed it, this whole series is fantastic and it just gets better. Some tiny things laid down in Old Man's War set the groundwork for events that take place in The Ghost Brigades (which is my favorite of the series, although I enjoy them all). I'm glad you found the romance aspects interesting because, like you mentioned, these aren't romance books, however I do find it interesting that the relationships in the book what grow and become more and more important. In fact, the third in what was originally only going to be a trilogy, The Last Colony, won a Romance Writers award!

I would definitely recommend that between Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony that you get online and read The Sagan Diary. It should still be free online, at least in its audio format if not i written (although I think you can find both). It really adds to the overall storyline.

This is one of my favorite science fiction series as it hearkens back to the kind of book that got me excited about science fiction in the first place. John Scalzi has certainly been able to recapture some of the sense of fun and adventure that made Heinlein's juveniles and space opera in general such a staple of older science fiction.

logankstewart said...

@Bill: I can see myself reading the rest of this series and enjoying it, so thanks for the book and the recommendation. I'll get to it eventually!

@Carl: Thanks for the tips on how to read the rest of the series. I'll have to come back to this whenever I get to the sequels.

Carl V. said...

I am game to talk Scalzi ANY TIME! :)

Kristopher A. Denby said...

I read this one a few years ago, but for some reason now I get the plot lines for it and The Forever War mixed up together in my head. I remember not having any trouble getting through to the end, and sometimes that is enough of an indication of a book's quality for me. I don't remember it saying anything deep to me in particular about humanity or life, but it was fun, in so much as I can recall.

I disagree that first person narration (even in a reflecting tone) is a tension killer. Have you seen American Beauty?

Thanks, Logan.

The Sound and Fury of Kristopher A. Denby

logankstewart said...

@Kris: I have seen American Beauty, though it's been quite a while. (Long enough that I don't remember the method of narration.) For me, however, the style of narration from Old Man's War takes away a lot of the tension in the book, given that it's likely that the protagonist has lived through whatever is coming up. Sure, it could be that the narrator is dead and recalling life, but usually this mindset doesn't typically work well for me (this was American Beauty, if I recall, and it did work very well there). "Dead men tell no tales," and all. The same is true for stories that establish the narrator up front and then the rest of the book is a "this is my story" kind of thing. You know that, in the end, unless something bizarre & unexpected happens, and the author is capable & clever, the narrator is gonna be okay.

Regardless, narrative form is gonna be different for everyone. Some folks just absolutely refuse to read 1st person, which is crazy to me. Conversely, some only read 1st. Interesting stuff, dude!

Hope all's well.

Carl V. said...

I don't really have any "person" preference when it comes to books. The oddest book I've ever read was Halting State by Charles Stross which is in the second person, but I loved the book.

I actually am okay with knowing that the narrator is okay because it is a first person book. If the writing is good enough I'll still feel the tension building because even though I assume they make it I don't know what is going to happen to them along the way.