Monday, September 29, 2008

John Scalzi "Old Man's War": book review

People in the FACT reading group had said "Old Man's War" is like Heinlein with serial numbers filed off. I have read some Heinlein, but perhaps the wrong novels, because I found no similarity between Scalzi and Heinlein. If anything, I like Scalzi better because he writes characters that feel real, not walking puppets playing roles pre-assigned to them by the author. I guess the similarities must lie in the military theme? I haven't read "Starship Troopers", but I bet it's not as funny as "Old Man's War". And the latter does not have a political agenda, unlike anything I would expect from Heinlein. Scalzi's dry wit shines from the very opening scene in the military recruiter's office, and it immediately inspired me to get to know the protagonist better. John Perry is a 70-something man who enrolled in the military to fight a war in the Colonies. He knows very well that once he leaves Earth, he'll never be able to come back, nor to send a message to his loved ones. For all purposes, military recruits are considered dead by the Earth society. More than that, nobody on Earth has any idea what the Colony worlds are like. At best, they suspect there are alien races and unimaginably advanced technologies. The only reason huge numbers of 70-somethings venture into the complete unknown is because they are convinced the technology of the Colonies will give them new bodies and significantly extend their life span. They figure it has to be true because an ordinary 70-year-old is not too fit to be a warrior.

The beginning of the novel does a good job of drawing you in. I was hooked at the point where the John and his friends reasoned out, from hints and glimpses and inconsistencies, that the world in the Colonies must be stranger than they imagine. At that realization I was rearing to go along for a ride with the protagonist.

The world out there turns out be strange, but unfortunately not in very interesting or profound ways. Sure, the rejuvenating treatment the new recruits undergo is quite shocking, but perhaps it would have been less so if they had read more science fiction ;-) It's not entirely original. Other than that, the strangeness of the Colonies comes mostly from all sorts of bizarre alien species living out there. The middle third of the book describes John's romp through all those alien worlds and species. Obviously he goes there not as a tourist but a soldier, and his exposure to alien cultures consists mostly of blowing them up. By his nature he's not very happy to do that, or to see his friends getting killed. But this inner dissonance does not do very much to advance the story. It still feels like some kind of Gulliver's travels-kind of tour of the bizarre, only without the satire. At that point the story stagnated and I wasn't very sure if it will take off again.

Towards the end the story regains its momentum when John meets Jane Sagan and forms an unusual, tension-fraught relationship with her. An interesting aspect to Jane's character is that despite being physically an adult, she, like other Special Forces members, is technically only 6 years old (she was born in an adult body). Thus, some of her emotional responses are like a 6-year-old's. I have to say I found it a bit illogical that individuals with emotional maturity of children would be trained to have the lethal superpowers, such as Special Forces members. Still, it's an interesting point to ponder. Another thing about the warriors of the Ghost Brigades that rang fake to me was that they secrectly longed for birth families they never had and fantasized about what their childhoods might have been like. They felt inferior for not having grown up the ordinary way. I did not find that believable. To be curious about what it's like to grow up in a family -- sure; but to feel inadequate for having missed that -- hardly. It reminded me of many classic SF stories where robots, despite being smarter and more capable than humans, wanted nothing more than to actually be human. Because you know, being human is by default superior to any mode of existence. Jane's predicament seemed similarly disingenuous.

Regardless, "Old Man's War" is a fun read, if you don't expect much depth from it.

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