Looks like I’m back to talking about another space opera this time, which is fine for me of course since I said last time that this is a genre that I absolutely love and am always up for reading more of it. And given all of that, I’m definitely making more of an effort to read more space opera this year than the last two years combined. Will see how that works out. More so since I have quite a few space opera novels on my “25 Series To Read In 2014” reading challenge, both tie-in fiction and original fiction alike. A few days ago it was Jack Campbell’s first Lost Fleet novel, and this time it is John Scalzi’s first Old Man’s War novel.
Bearing the same name as the series, Old Man’s War is exactly what the title says. In the mid-distant future, Mankind has colonised outward from Earth, but resources and habitable planets are both scarce and this means that our species runs up against other alien races constantly for those same resources and habitable planets. And in the midst of all this, the military forces of Mankind are staffed by the elderly, and this comes with a rather surprising twist that really makes the whole experience worth it. I definitely enjoyed this first book, and will be reading the next two for sure, eventually.
The Colonial Defense Force maintains a stranglehold and monopoly on all forms of advanced technology, no matter what use or application, and by dint of this, it is able to dictate terms to all human colonies and worlds. And for some strange reason, it only accepts those recruits who are of retirement age or more. It is a really weird concept, and I admit that I was quite skeptical of the whole thing. That is, until Scalzi revealed the big twist that allowed men and women of advanced age to become soldiers in a intrastellar conflicts, where there are alien races out there that want nothing more than to destroy humanity utterly. And that is when the novel really kicked into high drive and when it got really interesting. I’m really glad that this moment happened as soon as it did because otherwise I’d been starting to lose interest.
The protagonist of the novel is a widower named John Perry who signed his recruitment papers ages ago, at the same time as his wife who is now dead. Knowing that there is nothing left in this life for him, he is ready to commit to his requisite two years of service in the CDF, before he musters out and settles off on some colony world out of the confines of Earth. For me, John Perry made for a really interesting character in part because of his age and the experience and all that that brings. For the CDF requires old people for very specific reasons and Scalzi does indeed go into them, to let the reader know that this isn’t some half-formed concept but something that he has indeed spent a good amount of thought on. And I loved that.
Several times in the novel there was the feeling that the novel veers very close to being hard SF, but not in the way that, say Greg Egan’s novels do, but more in that Jean Johnson and Guy Haley’s novels do. It creates a certain feeling of verisimilitude and that has a lot of worth, because without that kind of a realistic element to the story, it is tough to take the novel seriously at all. At that point, it just becomes a fantasy and little more because the ideas are incomplete and all.
There are several other characters in the novel of course who make the entire thing feel much more interesting, characters like Jesse, Maggie, Thomas, Harry and others. They are all the Old Farts, the group of friends that John Perry makes when he joins the CDF. They are all of retirement age or older and their shared recruitment experience brings them together, in part also due to the new technologies that they are exposed to and are forced to adapt as a result. The novel has quite the kill-count, and in that you can see that no character is safe, and that adds another layer of verisimilitude to the plot since there are real threats for the characters to face. It spices things up since you can never be sure who might get knocked off and for me, that got me really invested in the characters. I could value all the characters in turn and as a reader that was of great value.
Another thing that I liked in the novel was the variety in the alien races that Scalzi describes in the novel and their relevant cultures as well. In the final third of the novel, alien cultures really come into their own and one alien race in particular becomes key to the climax as and when it happens in the end. There are several different things that come together in the end, and the way that Scalzi knits all these different threads together, that was something that I wanted to see more of. Because he really knows how to throw the reader for a loop and surprise him or her. I certainly was. One after another there are twists that take the story in a way that I did not expect and at every turn I was pleasantly surprised.
But, that’s all the good parts. Several times it was as if the author was dragging things on too long and while I loved all these different plot twists, some of them didn’t really work for me in the end. They seemed too convenient. The one in particular that I still remain double-mind about is the twist about the Ghost Brigades. That was something that I initially loved, but later on I could see how it began to negatively impact the story and John Perry became less interesting too.
Still, Old Man’s War is a novel that I enjoyed start to finish. Scalzi writes grand space opera action, something that the reader can really get excited about. And that’s important right? What’s space opera without some grand battles between humans and aliens, where the stakes are the survival of the species itself. It is a harsh galaxy out there and only those who can adapt most can survive it. And that’s what the entire novel is about, thematically: adaptation and survival. John Perry and his friends go through that, and the entire cast of the novel does as well.
Since I liked the novel, I’ll be making a point to get through the trilogy before the year is out. That’s a good goal I think.