Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, does a remarkable thing: it entertains and takes the reader into a complete and fascinating science fiction world, while at the same time addressing issues of humanity, how we determine our own identity, and the utility of war. This is the second book I have read by Scalzi, the other one being Fuzzy Nation, and I liked this one much more. Which is not to imply that I didn’t like Fuzzy Nation. Because I did.
Old Man’s War follows a protagonist named John who starts the story as an old widower. In this world, elderly folks can sign up to join the Civil Defense Forces when they get old enough. The CDF goes about helping humanity secure new planets to colonize. John doesn’t know exactly how they’re going to make him young and tough again, but joining the CDF is something he and his wife, Kathy, planned to do when they hit the proper age. So with his wife gone, John decides to go ahead and join up on his own.
Thus begins John’s saga as he is put into a MUCH enhanced, younger and more soldierly version of himself. Comradeship, possible love, and lots of battle ensue. And in the meantime, science, or the fictional science at least of the book, drives much of what’s going on in close combination with the characters.
Scalzi’s got a very clear voice. It’s similar to Heinlein’s, but more sardonic and snappy. There exist many more similarities between Old Man’s War and much of Heinlein’s work, say for example Starship Troopers. Indeed, there are clear homages to the master of the military science fiction novel in Scalzi’s work.
The characters and action of Old Man’s War, kick the book along at a very nice pace, with dialogue keeping the pace snappy as well. Nice twists and plot turns keep the reader guessing, but not at the important stuff. John is going to be a hero because his vision of things and understanding of people give him a leg up. His loyalty and good heart endear the reader to John and we know that the fellow is going to survive against all odds, because Scalzi knows how to write an entertaining and satisfying novel.
Scalzi’s strengths are his dialogue and characters’ voices, along with very well done plotting and, in the case of this novel, a robustly realized universe. Old Man’s War is like a nicely done chocolate cake that isn’t too rich but has a delicious and perfect layer or two of frosting. It’s pleasant to look upon, very enjoyable to consume, and you (or at least I) can keep eating until it’s all gone and still want more.
The only critique I have is that the concept of ‘skipping’ needs to be somehow fleshed out more. Once you open the can of worms that is parallel universes, you either need to get that can under control fast or use the worms quickly, or you’ll lose them.
But considering the fact that I haven’t read science fiction that engaged me from page one and kept me engrossed until I finished the book in years, that’s a minor issue.
I give it 4.5 out of 5 pens.
Some deets: Plenty of salty language; they’re in the infantry after all. Also, sex referred to, but not graphically by any means. Finally, plenty of violence, but it’s mostly aliens.