In 2005, Tor Books published John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and almost overnight, Scalzi went from prominent blogger to bestselling author. Though he had been writing professionally for many years (and earlier had self-published Agent to the Stars, an unrelated sci-fi novel), OMW’s success allowed Scalzi to become a full-time novelist, and several sequels (The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, etc.) followed.
The premise of OMW is that sometime in the future (perhaps the early 23rd Century?), 75 year-old John Perry enlists in the Colonial Defense Force, leaving behind life on Earth to be “reborn” into a cloned, genetically-modified, superhuman version of his younger self. Perry befriends other “Old Farts” (as the senior-citizens-turned-space warriors call themselves), and faces a variety of hostile aliens across many worlds.
Though he has enjoyed success with novels outside the vein of OMW (Redshirts won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2013), it is probably his best-known work (as of April 21, 2015, it has 1,507 reviews on Amazon, averaging 4.4 out of 5 stars). On the 10th anniversary of OMW’s publication (and with a new installment, The End of All Things, due out this year), I thought I would do an in-depth review of the novel (there will be some spoilers).
One cannot discuss OMW without mentioning that it was, as Scalzi freely admits, written in the vein of Robert Heinlein. A comparison between OMW and any number of Heinlein’s works (particularly Starship Troopers) could be done, but I prefer to review OMW on its own merits, attributing neither its strengths nor its weaknesses to anyone but Scalzi.
Much as I would have preferred to go through all of OMW’s 18 chapters, with some plot summary and commentary on each, that would make for much too long a review. Instead, I’ll tell you what I liked, what I didn’t, and what I was ambivalent about.
A disclaimer before we move on: I have never been in the military, but some of my observations on OMW are grounded in the experiences shared with me by relatives, friends, and co-workers who have served. If I misstate anything pertaining to the armed forces, I welcome corrections from veterans.
What I Liked, and Why
The writing style is easy, and it’s a quick read. Scalzi was a pioneering blogger, having established “Whatever” in 1998, and continuing it to the present, with thousands of visitors every day. No doubt, he applied what he learned from blogging to his prose: it’s fit for readers from a wide range of ages and educational levels; it moves along well; and it’s entertaining throughout.
The battle scenes are way-cool. It has the word “war” in the title, so there should be some fighting, right? Fear not, there is, with several engagements against aliens of various types and abilities, depicted in a cinematic style that would look great in the theatres (OMW was optioned for a film, but as of last year, is being developed as a TV series). It’s hard for me to decide whether I prefer the cityfight with the Whaidians over the ambush of the Colonial ships by the Rraey: they’re both gripping, though the former goes well for our protagonist, and the latter does not. Not at all. Speaking of aliens…
The Consu are awesome. They might look like Bug-Eyed-Monsters-From-Outer-Space, but the Consu are a highly-advanced civilization—and I don’t just mean technology. I can’t say too much without giving away crucial parts of the story. Of all the aliens encountered in OWM, they are the most memorable, and I would like to read more about them.
Scalzi dumps data in entertaining ways. Sci-fi stories often have to stop what they’re doing to explain things to the readers, and doing so and maintaining interest is hard to do. That’s why so many stories—books or films—have as their main character a “newcomer” who has to be told or shown how certain things work: think of Luke Skywalker listening to Obi-Wan Kenobi explain the Force in Star Wars.
A large part of the first chapter is exposition about the CDF; Scalzi expertly relays to us all the info by having a government official read documents to Perry and ask him to sign in agreement after each paragraph:
“Paragraph four: I understand that by volunteering for the Colonial Defense Forces, to consent to whatever medical, surgical or therapeutic regimens or procedures are deemed necessary by the Colonial Defense Forces to enhance combat readiness.”
Here it was: Why I and countless other seventy-five-year-olds signed up each year.
Kudos to Scalzi for such a clever technique. Later on, after John Perry’s consciousness has been transferred into a younger, much more capable version of his previous body, Scalzi has Perry read a pamphlet (and lets us read over Perry’s shoulder) that gives the rundown on all the enhancements:
NOT JUST A NEW BODY—A BETTER BODY
You’ve surely noticed the green skin tone of your new body. This isn’t merely cosmetic. Your new skin (KloraDerm ™) incorporates chlorophyll to provide your body with an extra source of energy and to optimize your body’s use of both oxygen and carbon dioxide. The result: You’ll feel fresher, longer—and better able to perform your duties as a CDF serviceperson! This only the beginning of the improvements you’ll find in your body. Here are some others…
OMW has some touching moments. One would assume—rightly so—that OWM is action, action, and more action, but there’s a human element that occasionally elevates the narrative above the level of a special effects movie. Here are John Perry’s thoughts as he continues to mourn his wife eight years after her death:
For as much as I miss the cemetery, I’ve been grateful it’s here, too. I miss my wife. It’s easier to miss her here at a cemetery, where she’s never been anything but dead, than to miss her in other places where she was alive.
There’s also this scene, as Perry and the other recruits watch as the spaceship they’re on leaves Earth—which, as part of signing up, they are never allowed to return to:
And then the Earth slowly began to shrink in the video screen, still massive, and still brilliant blue and white, but clearly, inexorably, beginning to take up a smaller portion of the screen. We silently watched it shrink, all of the several hundred recruits who came to look. I looked over to Harry, who, despite his earlier blustering, was quiet and reflective. Jesse had a tear on her cheek.
“Hey,” I said, and gripped her hand. “Not too sad, remember?”
She smiled at me and gripped my hand. “No,” she said hoarsely. “Not too sad. But even still. Even still.”
We sat there some more and watched everything we ever knew shrink in the viewscreen.
What I Didn’t Like, and Why
So far, so very, very good. But despite that, OMW has some serious flaws. Such as…
The characterization is terrible. I don’t mean that the characters are terrible people: no, I mean, they’re hardly people at all. As John Perry begins his new life in the CDF, he meets Leon—an overweight racist—Jesse—a woman from Texas—and Harry—a former physics teacher. Harry is useful for attempting to explain the “beanstalk” space elevator that delivers the new recruits to their ship, but Scalzi doesn’t flesh out the other characters much past what I told you.
This continues through Chapter Three, where we meet Thomas, a former doctor who likes to eat, and is a handy mouthpiece for Scalzi to deliver medical facts on aging; Susan, another woman who’s not much more than a name; and Alan, a superfluous physicist (who’s also gay—that’s how you can tell him apart from Harry). They’re also joined by Maggie, who is so much a cipher that Susan says to her, “You don’t talk much.” Oy.
All of them except Leon (who drops dead of a heart attack at the end of Chapter Three) become close friends with Perry, but they don’t have much to their personalities. Scalzi provides some background facts about each, but there’s more to characterization than just details. None of these minor characters are memorable.
It’s so bad that when Thomas’ death is reported at the start of Chapter Eleven, my first thought was, “Who?” Then I flipped back to earlier in the book to remind myself who Thomas was. Once I did, I shrugged. I shrugged again when Perry learns of Susan’s death at the end of the same chapter.
It’s worse for other characters: if you put guns to my children’s heads, I still couldn’t tell you much of anything about Private Watson, Lieutenant Keyes, Fiona Eaton, or Major Javna. They’re just names for characters that one forgets as soon as they’re offscreen.
The minor characters aren’t the only ones, though. Though the story is told from John Perry’s point of view, sometimes he plunges into the Uncanny Valley. Case in point…
John Perry is blasé about never seeing his family again. The terms of enlistment with the CDF render Perry legally dead, and after he leaves Earth, he will have no contact with anyone from his former life. Perry matter-of-factly recounts his farewells with his friends and relatives, and is astonishingly dispassionate about never seeing his son, Charlie, and his grandson, Adam, again. Scalzi gives all of two paragraphs (and no dialogue) to Perry’s last meeting with Charlie and his family. The hell?
I belong to the Knights of Columbus, and quite a few of our members are retirees. I’ve spent many hours volunteering alongside them and talking to them, and although they’re very different men, all of them cherish their grandchildren. So Scalzi’s depiction of Perry nonchalantly walking away from Adam is incredibly jarring, and rings absolutely false. If Scalzi wanted to keep the story moving, it would have been better to simply have Perry and his wife be childless.
Speaking of Kathy, John Perry repeatedly talks about missing his dead wife, but he has no problem gweeping other women. After the scenes with him at her grave, his intensely angry reaction to her memory being mocked during a psychological test, and his making sure to keep his wedding ring after gaining his new body, you get the sense that Perry deeply loved her. And yet, he doesn’t hesitate or question himself and that love once he’s given the chance to get busy with other women.
I get it: she’s been gone a long time, he has renewed youth and a new life, yadda yadda yadda. And I’m not a prude. But the thought never even crosses Perry’s mind that maybe, just maybe, he might want to NOT share his junk with the next woman who comes along. It’s a far cry from this scene from one of my favorite movies, Unforgiven, where the reformed outlaw Will Munny is still mourning his wife, whom he had lost several years before the story opens.
No real-life military operates like the CDF. Okay, I admit that I never served, but it’s obvious that Scalzi never did, either. And while much of how Scalzi portrays the CDF seems plausible, some of it makes even a non-veteran like me disbelieve what I’m reading.
First off, the new recruits have waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much free time. Everyone I’ve ever spoken with who has been in the service has told me that when they started, they pretty much hit the ground running, and didn’t stop for quite a while. Yes, technically, the OMW recruits aren’t in boot camp until they leave the spaceship they are transformed on, but they’re still given much too much unstructured time. The military just doesn’t do that (here’s an account of what Marine Corps basic training is like).
And the week-long goofing off between the time the OMW recruits get their new bodies and they arrive for training (in which, they are actually told to “have fun” and “enjoy the pleasures you enjoyed as a civilian”)? Including all the—ahem—”fraternization” among the males and females? Yeah, no. There isn’t a modern military that permits ANYTHING like that.
Furthermore, Scalzi apparently doesn’t fully understand that the primary goal of basic training is to psychologically break down the new recruit and mold them to that branch’s culture. It’s benign brainwashing. And there’s not much in OMW that portrays that.
And if I may pile on, the first time the newbies are given their MP-35 Infantry Rifles, they’re provided with live ammunition immediately upon unwrapping the plastic the weapons came in:
“Select missile rounds,” I said.
Missile rounds selected, Asshole replied. Please select target. Suddenly, every member of the platoon had a tight green targeting outline; glancing directly at one would cause an overlay to flash. What the hell, I thought, and selected one, a recruit in Martin’s squad named Toshima.
Target selected, Asshole confirmed. You may fire, cancel, or select a second target.
“Whoa,” I said, canceled the target, and stared down at my MP-35. I turned to Alan, who was holding his weapon next to me. “I’m scared of my weapon,” I said.
Didn’t anyone ever tell Perry not to point a weapon at anything he didn’t want killed? My daughters have never fired a gun in their lives and they know that.
Emotionally immature troops as special forces. Late in OMW, Perry falls in with the “Ghost Brigades,” cloned from those senior citizens who had volunteered for the CDF, but who had died before they could report for duty. The replicant of John Perry’s wife is one such member, and Perry meets her, now known as “Jane Sagan,” and with no memory of Kathy or her life. When Perry shows her a photo of their wedding day, she slams him into a bulkhead, then throws him across the room. Nice girl you have there, Johnny.
But you can’t blame her too much: though they look like adults, each member of the Ghost Brigades is chronologically no more than a few years old. Jane is a bit long in the tooth at six. Discussing the situation with his friends Harry and Jesse, Perry realizes:
“She doesn’t have much emotional maturity. She doesn’t seem to know what to do with emotions when she has them. She threw me across the room because she didn’t know how else to deal with what she was feeling.”
“Well, all she knows is fighting and killing,” Harry said. “We have a life of memories and experiences to stabilize us. Even younger soldiers in traditional armies have twenty years of experiences. In a real sense, these Special Forces troops are children warriors.”
Uh huh. And the folks who run the CDF think it’s wise to entrust automatic weaponry, very expensive military hardware, and critical missions to people with the emotional fortitude of pre-schoolers?
Some of the writing is really trite. I’ve followed Scalzi’s blog for many years, and I’ve read some of his other fiction. Despite what his detractors might say, he DOES have talent, and he CAN write really well. But sometimes he gets lazy.
Example: upon witnessing the new-and-improved Maggie, fresh from her transition to a new body, Perry tells the reader, “Maggie frankly looked like a goddess. It actually hurt to look at her.”
How is that “actually” possible? You know what “actually hurts” to look at? The sun. Other than that? Beats me. C’mon, Scalzi—you can do better than this.
Some of the writing is really juvenile. Scalzi’s biggest and most frequent failing as an author is that sometimes, he prefers to be clever than be good. A perfect illustration of this is when Perry and his friends reveal the rude names they have given their BrainPals (the personal computers installed in their heads to assist them in their new military careers): “Asshole,” “Bitch,” “Dickwad,” etc.
Yeah, seriously. These are 75-year old people using middle-school insults. And it’s not just one or two of them doing this, it’s all of them—except Susan, who calls hers, “Sweetie,”—in this little circle.
Some of the writing flat-out fails. It’s after the battle against the Covandu that John Perry begins to lose heart, believing that he’s become a remorseless, inhuman, killing machine. This scene could be poignant, except that you can’t take it seriously, because Scalzi has already undermined himself by saying that Perry and the other CDF soldiers went about attacking the Covandu city and exterminating the Lilliputian aliens by stepping on them.
No, I am not making that up:
So here’s how you fight one: You step on him. You just bring your foot down, apply pressure, and it’s done.
Scalzi describes the Covandu as being about an inch tall. You know what else are about that size? Roaches and termites. Does your exterminator stomp around your house, squishing bugs one by one? Or does he or she spray poison? Right? Right?
So, faced with an enemy about the same size as an insect, wouldn’t the CDF soldiers adopt similar methods? You know, poison gas or liquids? How about acid? Or maybe some good old-fashioned flamethrowers?
“You step on him.” Are you [redacted] kidding me?
What I’m “Meh” About
Let’s move on. There are some aspects of OMW that don’t work for me, but don’t make me want to ragequit the book. Such as…
The premise is hooey. In the first chapter, one learns the central premise of the novel: that the CDF recruits senior citizens and somehow makes them into space warriors. Old people are wanted because they have “life experiences.”
In reality, the military wants young people, and it’s as just much for their mental plasticity as for their physical abilities. Think of the phrases, “young and impressionable,” and, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” In one’s late teens and early twenties, one is much more responsive to the psychological conditioning of basic training.
Scalzi himself alludes to that with the character of Master Sergeant Antonio Ruiz, the recruit’s Drill Instructor: “Each of you has seventy-five years of bad habits and personal feelings of entitlement that I have to purge in three goddamn months.”
So it’s hooey, but no more so than rabbits who have long conversations with each other, or humans only using 10% of their brains, and without it, there’s no story. Fortunately, Scalzi more-or-less manages to pull it off, suspending reader disbelief.
Scalzi handwaves at the science... One could write an entire novel about the processes and ramifications of transferring consciousness—whatever that is—from one body to another. But because that’s not the thrust of OMW, Scalzi breezes through the scene where John Perry gets his brain uploaded to a life-sized Galactic GI Joe doll. There’s a cool moment during the transfer when…well, I’ll let Perry tell you:
And then I’m me again, staring into Dr. Russell’s room feeling dizzy and looking straight at Dr. Russell’s face and also the back of his head and thinking to myself, Damn, that’s a neat trick, and it seems like I just had that thought in stereo.
And it hits me. I’m in two places at the same time.
I smile and see the old me and the new me smile simultaneously.
…except when he doesn’t. Later on, Harry—nope, sorry, it’s Alan: they sound alike—tries to explain to John Perry and some character you have never met before (and will not remember once the scene is over; seriously, I had to look up his name: “Ed McGuire”) about how space travel works. Ships use a “skip drive” that jumps them into alternate universes that are nevertheless completely identical (“except for the occasional electron placement here and there,” Alan tells them) to the one they just left.
“Try not to let it worry you too much,” Alan said. “From a day-to-day point of view, all this universe hopping doesn’t matter.”
So, it’s just like the points in Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhkay then. So why did Scalzi even bother going to the effort to explain it? To sci-fi fans, spaceship travel is like a candy bar at the checkout line: we’ll just buy it without thinking.
Earth is not markedly different from the early 21st Century. Though the CDF has all kinds of cool tech, Earth (or at least Ohio) as depicted in the opening chapters doesn’t seem all that different from now. Scalzi mentions cars, strip malls, Time and Newsweek magazines, etc.
Later on, the “United States” as a nation is discussed, as is the President (one can only hope that by the events of OMW, the Oval Office is NOT occupied by a member of the Bush or Clinton dynasties). Likewise, the Chicago Cubs, and Super Bowls (one can only hope that by then, the Cleveland Browns have finally brought home the Lombardi Trophy, if only for the sake of their long-suffering fans).
More about the aliens, please. Several alien races are mentioned in OMW, but aside from the Consu, none are developed much. I’ve mentioned the 1″-tall Covandu already. The Rraey–antagonists of the third act–are described as birdlike and enjoying the taste of human flesh (though one notes of the CDF warriors, “The green ones aren’t good eating. They’re not ripe yet.”).
The Whaidians look “like a cross between a black bear and a large, angry flying squirrel.” Gindalians have “huge wings;” the Vindi are “spiderlike;” and the Salong are deerlike, with “cunning, almost human hands.”
But that’s it. And when the aliens (except for the Consu) do speak, they all pretty much sound the same (at least, as translated by Perry’s BrainPal).
I keep waffling on an overall evaluation of Old Man’s War. What Scalzi does well, he does really, really well: the style, the pace, the exposition, the action sequences, and the pathos.
But what he does poorly, he does really, really poorly: the minor characters, Perry’s seeming shallowness of emotions, the military verisimilitude, and the stilted attempts at humor.
Almost all the reviews I’ve read of Old Man’s War have been very favorable, and on my first pass through it, I enjoyed it. But after re-reading it a few more times, its defects have become too noticeable for me to gloss over. Two and a half stars out of five.
Kenton Kilgore is the author of Lost Dogs, the story of a German Shepherd and a Beagle-mix who survive the end of the human world, only to find that their struggles have just begun. Kenton also wrote Dragontamer’s Daughters, a two-part young adult fantasy novel based on Navajo culture and belief. With Patrick Eibel, he created Our Wild Place, a children’s book about the joy to be found in exploring Nature. Follow Kenton on Facebook for daily posts on sci-fi, fantasy, and other speculative fiction.