Tue
Mar 8 2011 12:00pm

Best SFF Novels of the Decade: An Appreciation of Old Man’s War

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.

The horror of war is what it does to civilians. The pity of war is what it does to soldiers: the young lives lost and young bodies maimed. What might it be like to grow old, to have had your life, and then to be given a second life, and a second youth, as a soldier? Even without the offer of a third life as a civilian colonist if you—improbably—survive your stint, it’s a deal many would take.

This is one of several intriguing premises of Old Man’s War. Two hundred years from now, humanity has had the FTL “skip drive” for over a century, and spread far. Extraterrestrial humanity’s government is the Colonial Union. The universe is crawling with likewise expanding intelligent species, many of which covet the same real estate. A few are allies, or neutral. Some of the others quite like humans, for the taste.

Hence, the Colonial Defense Force, stomping the bugs and ensuring humanity’s continued existence. The Colonial Union monopolises access to space, and its Quarantine Laws mean that becoming a colonist or a soldier is a one-way ticket. People from overpopulated countries can leave Earth on easy terms. For U.S. citizens, the only way out is to sign up for the CDF. The one qualification is reaching the minimum age: seventy-five.

John Perry is one of a batch of a thousand or so doddery elders who go up the space elevator from Nairobi to Colonial Station. He makes friends, becomes a citizen, and ships out. On the starship he learns just what his new life involves. It’s not all bad. Then comes boot camp, combat, disillusion, more combat, startling revelations, harrowing reversals, victory, promotion—and the small but glowing prospect of an unexpected happy ending, in the next life.

The story’s footwork is smooth and fast, like the skip drive. It’s only when we fall out of it that we notice how many questions are unanswered. The narrator is telling the truth as he sees it—but casually dropped clues may make us query the CDF’s version of it. How odd, after all, that all those rampaging aliens didn’t show up long before humanity skipped out to meet them....

Well-versed science fiction readers will, of course, recognise where the book’s DNA comes from (and for other readers, there’s Scalzi’s acknowledgement of his debts to Heinlein at the back). But it’s more than just a clone of Starship Troopers, with the odd plasmid of recombinant material from Gordon Dickson’s Naked to the Stars and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. It’s been genetically enhanced, and there’s a computer running in its head.

Unlike these books, however, it’s not fundamentally about war, or even the ethics of interspecies competition. Not is it about current politics. There are no harangues, and no obvious parallels to the present. (Scalzi tosses a couple of chunks of red meat to his right, but the tone throughout is liberal.) It’s about youth and age, love and loss, and it makes you feel the sting of these even as you wonder if the quickness of Scalzi’s hand deceives your eye.

One more thing, and not the least: Old Man’s War also differs from its predecessors in having some good, dirty laughs.


Ken MacLeod is the author of the recent science fiction novel The Restoration Game, as well as the Fall Revolution series and numerous other works. He has received the Prometheus award, British Science Fiction Association award, and been twice nomianted for the Arthur C. Clarke award.

16 comments
A.J. Bobo
1. Daedylus
To be honest, I found the start of OMW to be a little slow. Readable, but slow. Of course, somewhere along the line (right after basic training, I think) the pace picked up and this book got GOOD. It has moments that are exciting, moments that make you think and moments that make you feel something. Happy, sad, scared, it doesn't matter. An emotional reaction from a book is a good thing.

The thought of feeding live people to giant shark-alien-things is still terrifying to me.
Bill Siegel
2. ubxs113
Ken MacLeod's endorsement is enough for me!
Carl V.
3. Carl V.
Very enjoyable appreciation. I picked up Old Man's War not long after the release of The Ghost Brigades after an online review piqued my interest. From the very beginning I was hooked. OMW not only made me appreciate the fact that there was contemporary science fiction out there tailor made to keep my passion for science fiction burning bright, but also helped me appreciate even more some of the classics that I have grown to love over the years.

The entire series is one that pleases on so many levels: action, romance, good ol' fashioned space opera, thought-provoking ideas. And it is all wrapped up in a story that rewards not only the first read but later re-reads.
Carl V.
4. Zthardman
Still the only book to make me laugh and tear up at the same time.
Carl V.
5. cnote56
I've heard of this author before. Connecting him to Heinlein, was icing on the cake. I bought this book two days ago and can't wait to tear into it. (Best part, it is 1st in a series that looks really, really good.)
Carl V.
6. scarecrow
I don't think this endorsement does this book justice! True it is Starship Troopers, rolled up with The Forever War and a little bit of John Ringo thrown in, but it is so much more. John Scalzi writes with a flair for the credible and ridiculous all at the same time. It has action, intrigue, comedy, good dialogue, and heck of a plot to boot. It's also the first book of a very fine storyline, than any true scifi fan must check out. And while your'e checking out Scalzi's other works get Agent to the Stars & The Android's Dream. These last two showcase even more the aforementioned talent of making the ridiculous credible, and really what more could you want of a Scifi writer, than this rare talent?
Carl V.
7. DarrenJL
Scalzi was one of the few authors to come out in the SFF poll that I had never heard of, so I picked this book up last week. As someone above noted, it starts out a bit weak. But that's not quite correct. The opening paragraph is a monster. A tiny monster, like a flukeworm or something; you may not notice it, but it gets its hooks into you. And small or not, it has teeth. I'm not sure how many people would consider that a compliment, but it's meant to be. There were quite a few moments in the first third of the book where I nearly put it down. The dialogue is a bit too-obviously expository, the jokes a little strained. But that first paragraph had its hooks in me, as I said. I knew the teeth were there, and I suspected eventually the author would reveal them again.

To be honest, I wondered even while reading it if I wasn't being overly judgemental because of the fact that the book came first place in that poll. That set the bar high, and probably unfairly so. Once the book got over these early hiccups, if I may strain the metaphor, it had me. Bit right down. I read it cover to cover, then went online and ordered the next three in the series.

So a thank you to the Tor voters, who tipped me to a good read, and to Mr. Scalzi, for writing it in the first place. And, of course, for showing me the value of a good opening paragraph.
Samantha Brandt
8. Talia
I think it was the humor woven into the plot that surprised and especially pleased me. A serious sci-fi novel that at times proves quite witty is to my experience a bit of a rarity (at least for me. I rather expect those more well-read in the genre to say "you're wrong, there's Bob Smith, and Fred Jones, and..." etc etc. :)).
Carl V.
9. Dalben
This is one of the books everyone seems to love except of me. It's without exaggeration one of the worst and most boring books i've ever read, basically a rerun of Starship Troopers, and every bit as reactionary and militaristic as the Original.
Carl V.
10. Mr Teufel
@ Dalben: If you think it's in the same political sphere as Starship Troopers, you really haven't seen the cues that Mr MacLeod mentions in his review. Sure, there are characters who frame things as if it were so. But those characters are in positions where it would best suit their purposes for people to believe that all aliens are against us. Other characters, the protagonist, and events themselves tell a different story: one where humans are *not* the good guys fighting evil aliens.
Carl V.
11. afterthefallofnight
"Old Man's War" is one of a handful of novels that reawakened my love of reading science fiction (actually, "Learning the World" was another). The Ghost Brigades and the Last Colony are also great fun to read.

For me, the thing that made the stories work, is that I was interested in the main characters. What kept me reading wasn't the new technologies or world building or the battle scenes or the twists and turns of the plot - I don't mean to impune those aspects of the stories - but I kept reading to find out what happened next to John and Jane and Zoe. To paraphrase Scalzi (who I believe was quoting Heinlein): his characters do not exist for the story, the story exists for his characters.

Yes, I could see similarities to stories that had been written before. I don't care. I really liked the Forever War and while my tastes have changed over the years, I loved Starship Troopers when I was a young man. I think Scalzi learned the right lessons from Heinlein's fiction, especially his juveniles. I hope we have not heard the last of John and Jane and Zoe.
Carl V.
12. Johnny Chinpo
To be honest, I never really got the love for this book. It's OK, a perfectly fine, but entirely forgettable book.
Carl V.
13. Kellyoyo
I was sucker punched by this book, and not in a good way. I was highly entertained and kept expecting it to get serious and starting dealing with the big questions it hinted at -- questions of morality, humanity, adulthood and love in an inhumane world -- but it never did. It glanced at them and bounced away.

If it hadn't been on a "best of the decade" list, maybe I wouldn't have expected it to be a serious work of thoughtful SF. As it stands, I question how this book could possibly be ranked with Peter Watts' Blindsight, which does ask big questions, and tries like hell to answer them.
Terry Lago
14. dulac3
This wasn't a bad book by any means, but how it got to number one on this list eludes me. It was entertaining, but my final impression was more or less "meh". The writing was adequate, but not exceptional; the story was entertaining, but I didn't really see anything new. All of the characters more or less sounded very much the same to me in the way they talked and thought (even though the author went out of his way to explicitly tell me in the text that they were not the same at all) and the implications of the different ways in which they became soliders never seemed to inform the way they thought or acted (whether they were the 'regular' 75 year old soldiers given a new lease on life or part of the supposedly very different Ghost Brigades). There were also a few too many "as you know Bob" infodumps for me and I really just didn't get an overwhelming sensawunda from this one. This is an alright book, but I really do not think it's the best of the decade.
Ed Motler
15. tardigrade
I still don't see what all the hype was about. It's a concentration of Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Haldeman's the Forever War. If you are going to do that then you realy have to bring something new to the story. Scalzi tries and there are some interesting concepts, but its realy not enough to save the book from being ultimately forgettable. Pacing is metronomic and the main protagonist is a mannequin, casualy meandering from one predictable scene to another, where you know what's going to happen two chapters in advance. The thing that really bugs me, is that the ending is Marygays letter to Mandela only via brain pal. That's just plagiarism. Disappointing.
Carl V.
16. AndrewInAbOAT
As a merchant mariner I have ALOT of time to read. Old Mans War is one of the best books that I have ever read. Pat on the back Mr Scalzi

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