One thing that’s been said about John Scalzi’s fiction, starting with the publication of Old Man’s War, is that he doesn’t let the writing get in the way of the story—which people often interpret as “this book may not get caught up in fancy language, but it sure goes spin a good yarn.” I submit to you, however, that this description severely underestimates both the power of Scalzi’s prose, and the extent to which he has calibrated it for precise effect.
If we consider it from a distance, to take in a structural perspective, Old Man’s War might strike some readers as unpromising. From the first chapter, where John Perry checks in to formally enlist in the Colonial Defense Forces, the novel is loaded with scenes in which Perry has something explained to him, alternating with scenes in which Perry has a conversation where he and his friends or comrades try to figure something out, including more than one philosophical discussion. When I put it to you that baldly, it sounds like your worst nightmare of a Golden Age SF novel, right?
Well, stop looking at Old Man’s War from a distance and come on inside.
I can’t presume to know exactly what science fiction Scalzi read growing up, but I’m willing to hazard a guess that he’d read any number of those nightmare Golden Age “novels of ideas” I invoked just now, where barely defined characters maneuver through a barely-more-defined futuristic backdrop, hitting all their talking points as they go. He’s also read the “novels of ideas” that worked (most obviously Starship Troopers), and he’s figured out the difference: Everything in the novel—from the philosophical ideas to the world-building and so on down the line—everything must be secondary to the characters.
Before we learn anything about the world of the Colonial Defense Forces, Old Man’s War plunges us into John Perry’s world: the life of an ordinary 75-year-old man who’s spent most of the last decade mourning his wife, who died from something as simple as a stroke while making breakfast. He’s reminded of her everywhere he goes in the small Ohio town where he still lives, to the point where, as he tells us, “it’s easier to miss her at a cemetery, where she’s never been anything but dead, than to miss her in all the places where she was alive.”
Through everything else that John Perry experiences once he commits to the Colonial Defense Forces, leaving Earth behind to fight aliens among the stars, the first-person narration always underscores his emotional complexity as a character. Because things don’t just happen to him: They happen to him and, as he describes them to us, we can see how they make him elated, or frustrated, or shocked, or depressed. And, from what we can see of the novel’s other characters through Perry’s eyes, most of them are just as complex, just as real.
Old Man’s War may have a lot of ideas in it, you see, but it’s not a “novel of ideas” so much as it’s a novel about ordinary people grappling with extraordinary circumstances, and thinking through their situation is just one of the ways they do that. But John Perry’s voice is the essential component in all this; Scalzi intuitively understands that it’s by learning to care about Perry as a character that we’ll accept the invitation to see the world through his eyes, at a carefully controlled pace that won’t be overwhelming but, more importantly, never insults readers’ intelligence.
Where did Scalzi get that intuitive understanding? Again, I can’t say for sure, but I have to suspect that all those years he spent as a film critic taught him plenty about storytelling architecture. Whether or not he’s ever read Robert McKee (and that’s actually something I’m fine not knowing), Scalzi clearly understands how to emotionally connect with readers, and doesn’t waste any time doing it. It’s not even a matter of “the writing doesn’t get in the way of the story;” with Old Man’s War, and every novel that comes afterwards, Scalzi’s writing is the way, the only way, to the story. And I realize that, as an appreciation, this may all be a bit technical, so I want to close with a simple, straightforward invitation: Pick up Old Man’s War, and get to know John Perry. You’ll be glad you did.
Ron Hogan is the founding curator of Beatrice.com, one of the first websites to focus on books and authors. Lately, he’s been reviewing science fiction and fantasy for Shelf Awareness. He’s known Scalzi ever since they hung out on Usenet together in the mid-1990s, so to heck with objectivity.