Re-enlisting in the Old Man’s War

I remember the first time I saw Old Man’s War. It was in my local Borders—a good one, where the books mostly had their spines intact and the staff actually knew what they were talking about. I asked the science fiction guy if he’d read anything good lately, and he pointed me right at it. But I guess I saw that throwback cover art and thought “Heinlein”—and “early Heinlein,” at that. The Heinlein who hadn’t yet embraced free love and freakydeaky libertarian thought experiments. The one who wrote Starship Troopers, an undoubtedly significant novel, but whose John Wayne attitude to war had always rubbed me the wrong way.

I would eventually fall in love with Old Man’s War—even though it is, in one sense, a love letter to Starship Troopers. But it would take some time.

Two years, to be precise, and some dogged insistence on the part of a book-minded friend whose taste overlaps with mine, and who rarely insists I read anything (let alone science fiction). So now I had to give Old Man’s War a fair shot.

I went back to Borders and bought a copy. I went home, turned on the light by the couch and opened to the first page…

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

Forty-eight hours later I was done. The next day I went back to Borders and bought the rest of the series…

WARNING: Spoilers follow.

Old Man’s War tells the story of John Perry, a 75-year-old American who volunteers to serve in the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF). To make sense of that, consider the book’s central conceit—a future in which humanity has conquered the stars but whose colonies lack sufficient population to successfully compete with the other species that populate the galaxy. So the Colonial Union, which rules beyond Earth’s gravity well, monopolizes advanced technology (such as the skip drive that allows for interstellar travel) and uses Earth as a sort of people farm. From the developing world come the colonists; while developed states—and the United States in particular—supply its soldiers. But not just anyone can sign up to join the CDF. You have to be old—75 to be precise.

This conceit serves to propel Midwestern septuagenarian John Perry into basic training—after, that is, the CDF transfers his consciousness into a (highly modified) new body, complete with the ability to regenerate lost limbs, oxygen-retaining SmartBlood, and an on-board computer/networking interface, called a BrainPal. And, of course, green skin.

Despite the best efforts of an obligatory ass-chewing sergeant, Perry and his band of fellow trainees, who dub themselves the “Old Farts,” make it through with flying colors. Then they are separated and deployed across the known universe, where they proceed to engage pretty much any alien species with plasma or projectile weaponry.

Few survive.

Superficially, Old Man’s War is exactly what it seems to be—an homage to Heinlein that appears to share the sensibilities and even narrative structure of Starship Troopers. But its impact on the science fiction landscape has been far greater, and more complex, than would be possible to extract from a formulaic rehash of what is, to this day, a polarizing work. That’s because, as much as Old Man’s War is homage (and it certainly is), it is also something else entirely, and it is this duality that marks Old Man’s War—and, even more so, the completed trilogy it belongs toas significant.

Early reviews noted the connection to Heinlein, while praising the book as an unusually good piece of Heinleinian SF. Writing for sfreviews.net in 2004, Thomas Wagner characterized the novel as:

… a tremendous, confident SF debut for well-known blogger John Scalzi. Openly patterning itself after Starship Troopers, Old Man’s War takes an exciting tale of alien conflict and dresses it up intelligently with such themes as individual identity, what makes one human, the significance of mortality, and the ethics of life extension. Economically told at just over 300 pages, the story, peopled with remarkably well-drawn and memorable characters, never flags for an instant and steers a steady course without veering into self-importance or maudlin sentiment.

In 2006 Justin Howe, for Strange Horizons, dubbed Old Man’s War (and its sequel):

…fast-paced and enjoyable, making use of technology and culture in a playful fashion, while never forgetting the debt owed to such authors as Robert Heinlein and Joe Haldeman.

The book, with its depiction of heroic soldiers saving humanity from rapacious barbarian hordes at the gate, appeared to strike a chord with politically conservative SF readers. This is perhaps unsurprising. But the extent to which Old Man’s War became a cult hit in the conservative blogosphere is nevertheless notable, and played no small part in its commercial success. Eugene Volokh and Professor Brainbridge were early fans, as was Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, who apparently wrote about the book more than 20 times in the span of a year.

The book also had its champions on the leftCory Doctorow, in a 2004 review, memorably referred to it as “Forever War with better sex; Starship Troopers without the lectures.” However, there were some who felt uncomfortable with a story that seemed to validate the Colonial Union’s aggressive, militaristic foreign policy.

This view is seemingly embodied in a sequence featuring two-time Democratic Senator Thaddeus Bender, famed negotiator and, we learn, a new recruit to Perry’s platoon. Bender is a caricature, a narcissistic figure whose appeals to idealism—in this case, peacemaking—are entirely self-serving. And though the resemblance is likely unintentional, Bender does come off a bit like John Kerry—who, at the time of publication, had just lost the most recent U.S. presidential election, and who is also from Massachusetts.

Regardless, Bender exists to be scorned, and a straightforward reading of the scene where he dies, gun down and arms outstretched in a rather ill-conceived attempt at diplomacy, is to assume that this scorn should be extended to the act of peacemaking. In a widely debated review of the book from 2006, Nicholas Whyte argued that this implies a politics in which:

…even the slightest thought of peace-making is for dummies who get their come-uppance by making futile pacifist gestures. Give war a chance, and don’t ask what it is actually for.

This is also, one notes, the standard critique of Starship Troopers from the left. In the words of David Itzkoff:

Starship Troopers tells of the education of a naïve young man who enlists in a futuristic infantry unit. Raised by his father to believe that the practice of war is obsolete, the immature soldier—and, by extension, the reader—is instructed through a series of deep space combat missions that war is not only unavoidable, it is vital and even noble. While peace, Heinlein writes, is merely “a condition in which no civilian pays any attention to military casualties,” war is what wins man his so-called unalienable rights and secures his liberty. The practice of war is as natural as voting; both are fundamental applications of force, “naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax.”

I’ll admit that I share some aspects of this view. I’ve always appreciated works that, like both Starship Troopers and Old Man’s War, recognize the humanity, bravery and enormous sacrifice of those in uniform (for a more recent example, check out my review of Embedded by Dan Abnett). At the same time, I’ve never had much patience for works that use that bravery and sacrifice to validate policies that are morally or strategically ruinous, or which glorify the use of violence as as default mode of problem-solving.

For a bit more than half of its 300 or so pages, Old Man’s War appears to do exactly that. In a briefing, Perry and his fellow recruits are told that:

…the reality is that on the ground, we are in fierce and furious competition. We cannot hold back our expansion and hope that we can achieve a peaceful solution that allows for colonization by all races. To do so would be to condemn humanity. So we fight to colonize.

In a perfect universe, we would not need the Colonial Defense Forces…but this is not that perfect universe. And so, the Colonial Defense Fores have three mandates. The first is to protect existing human colonies and protect them from attack and invasion. The second is to locate new planets suitable for colonization, and hold them against predation, colonization and invasion from competing races. The third is to prepare planets with native populations for human colonization.

As Colonial Defense Forces, you will be required to uphold all three mandates. This is not easy work, nor is it simple work, nor is it clean work, in any number of ways. But it must be done. The survival of humanity demands it–and we will demand it of you. (106-7)

Perry, initially at least, buys into the rhetoric of “kill or be killed.” But recall that he is an individual who possesses limited experiences with the CDF. As those experiences rack up, so do his doubts. Bender’s death, and the ensuing bloodbath, serves as a turning point of sorts. As Corporal Viveros, who to this point had been Bender’s chief antagonist in the platoon, explains:

We didn’t have to do this, you know. Knock these poor sons of bitches out of space and make it so they spend the next couple of decades starving and dying and killing each other. We didn’t murder civilians today—well, other than the ones that got Bender. But they’ll spend a nice long time dying from disease and murdering each other because they can’t do much of anything else. It’s no less of a genocide. We’ll just feel better about it because we’ll be gone when it happens. (179)

Perry comes to understand this truth as he is forced to engage in what can only described as a string of atrocities, from preemptive strikes against the pterodactyl-like Gindalians or literally stomping the lilliputian Covandus’ homeworld into dust. “I don’t feel connected with what it was to be human anymore,” he says:

Our job is to go meet strange new people and cultures and kill the sons of bitches as quickly as we possibly can. We know only what we need to know about these people in order to fight with them. They don’t exist to be anything other than an enemy, as far as we know. Except for the fact that they’re smart about fighting back, we might as well be fighting animals.

The theme of the inhumanity of humanity is one Scalzi develops far more in later volumes, as Martin McGrath’s brilliant exegesis of the series illustrates. But it’s clearly signaled in Old Man’s War. As often as humanity is put at risk in the universe, Colonial Union is just as often the aggressor. It is a more or less rapacious, expansionary entity with little regard for life and even less for the notion of coexistence. And Old Man’s War does not revel in or glorify this fact. Rather it gives you people to care about, shows them being indoctrinated into the cause, and then presents their doubts.

Yet Scalzi never quite repudiates the Colonial Union either, or at least, not yet. The threat to humanity is very real, and very frightening. Hence the case for reading the novel as equal parts homage to and subversion of its source of inspiration.

This duality is, I think, reflective of the historical moment in which the book was written. Joe Haldeman’s Forever War is rightly cited as a rebuttal and counterpoint to Starship Troopers, military SF refracted through the prism of post-My Lai Vietnam and the death of the John Wayne ideal. Yet Forever War and Starship Troopers are equally idealistic works. War, in the latter, is righteous; in the former, it is misguided. Characters who come to accept the veracity of these underlying “truths” may thus achieve a form of catharsis.

Such is not the case for John Perry in Old Man’s War. War is justifiable because the threat of extinction is real; but war is equally a source of insecurity, a tool that is used too quickly, too frequently and with too little thought given to its implications and consequences. In this sense, Old Man’s War embodies a peculiar zeitgeist of the post-9/11 era—on the one hand, the perception of, and desire for protection from, perpetual, existential threat; on the other, growing discomfort at the costs—moral and material—of endless and preemptive war. Perry comes to perceive the galaxy’s hostility to humanity in such terms, as equally the product of aggressiveness from humanity’s competitors and of human aggressiveness toward them.

And it doesn’t supply us with an easy answer, or a right answer. Not yet, at least. But for now, you can read militarism or anti-militarism into the text, because they are both there—coexisting in dynamic tension, itching for resolution.

If ever there was a book screaming for a sequel, this was it. And it would get them—first two, then a third, then two more—the latest of which is being released in hardcover today. There are, I’ve heard, more on the way.

Having read the whole sequence has, at times, complicated the writing of this essay—in large part because my thoughts and feelings on Old Man’s War are intrinsically bound up with my thoughts and feelings on the latter books, and especially for the direct sequels, The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony. It is difficult for me to think of Old Man’s War as a story with a beginning, middle and end, because I know it’s just the beginning. And because I think the way we get from here to there is very important. Nevertheless, I’ve tried to make the case that, in ideational terms, Old Man’s War should be considered on its own merits, and as an important work of science fiction as well.

It also happens to be a very good work of science fiction. The story is fast-paced and exciting. The characters (Perry and Jane Sagan in particular) are memorable. The universe is well-rendered and believable. And the prose is lean and sharp—a hallmark of Scalzi’s work, but without the overemphasis on snark and banter that features in some of his more recent output. It’s a book that’s been cited as a great introduction to science fiction for new readers, and is actually used as such in at least one college course. I’ve spoken to many readers who entered fandom through this book, and others who rediscovered the thrill and wonder of SF as a consequence of reading it. And I understand that it sells very well, even today, ten years on from the first print edition.

So I’ll admit the thing that reviewers and critics often have trouble admitting: I love this book. I loved it the first time I read it, and I loved it even more this time.

Even still, there were some things that bothered me.

As Kenton Kilgore points out, Perry is strangely uninterested in the family he leaves behind. Yes, it’s true that some individuals have difficult relationships with their family, but that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Perry has a son, with whom he spends his final evening on Earth. They seem close, and the scene is suitably touching. But Perry doesn’t give him as much as a second thought after enlisting—not a single pang of regret or even stray thought as to what his son might be up to, or whether he is healthy, safe, happy, etc. In fact none of the recruits think about their kids. Some, like Perry, do think about their spouses—just not their kids. Odd, no?

And then there’s the fact that nearly everyone in the book is American—all but Corporal Viveros, to be precise, and she is gone after a handful of pages. There is a reason for this—Scalzi is, as discussed above, subverting the tropes of military SF, and Americentrism is certainly one of the most frequently encountered tropes.

But even Starship Troopers wasn’t this red, white and blue—Johnnie Rico, you will recall, is from the Philippines. Moreover, even if the intention is set up for subversion, there is the very real question of why the assumption of “American-ness” as default isn’t one of the things being subverted. The world is a big, crowded and increasingly interconnected place; as such, the days of cultural or political monopolarity are already over, if they were ever real to begin with. So why is the CDF so uniformly American—and white, middle-class American at that? This has always bothered me, and did so even more upon re-reading the novel.

Even still, the strengths far outweigh the faults, because Old Man’s War is that rare book that can speak to all sorts—liberals and conservatives, veteran and new SF readers, those looking for light escapism and those who want to be challenged, and so on.

And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s pretty remarkable that, ten years later, I’m still finding new things to appreciate.

This article was originally published in August 2015, the first in a reread of the Old Man’s War series.
For a limited time, get a free ebook of Old Man’s War by joining the Tor.com eBook Club! Offer expires June 21st at 11:59 pm, US & Canada only.

The G is founder and co-editor of the group blog ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’, which covers SF/F and crime fiction, comics, cult films and video games. He moonlights as an academic.

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