Saturday, March 5, 2016

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife's grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the Colonial Defense Force. They don't want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You'll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You'll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you'll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

* * *

I am ashamed to admit that I was not aware of Mr Scalzi’s writing until the publication of Redshirts a few years ago. It sounded like great fun and I added it to my enormous ‘To Be Read’ list in the hopes of finding time to read it eventually. I suggested it to my husband, who thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook, so it seemed like a good choice for maintaining my sanity during the highly repetitive tagging of the Great Closedown. I have to admit that my colleagues got rather annoyed with me chortling away to myself, but I thought it was hilarious and moved on to various other titles in his back catalog. Whilst I have not come across one that I did not enjoy, Old Man’s War seemed perfect for the NYOBG ladies: funny and action-packed but full of thought-provoking premises and interesting ethical dilemmas.

I know that Sci-Fi can be a little geeky and overburdened by scientific sounding mumbo-jumbo as it tries to justify faster than light travel and the other necessities of interplanetary colonization. Mr Scalzi turns this on its head by pointedly not explaining any of the advanced technology that we see in anything other than the broadest of terms. He even suggests that much of it is beyond humanity’s level of scientific development and has been ‘borrowed’ from alien species and then reverse engineered. This allows us to simply go along with the story and not worry too much about how John and his fellow soldiers do what they do or go where they go.

Speaking of whom, John is a rather likeable narrator. He has a streak of sarcasm and is often quite flippant, which reminded me a great deal of my paternal grandfather. He was an old guy who always had a twinkle in his eye and a surprisingly wicked sense of humor, even after losing his wife quite suddenly. He was lost in his grief for several years, but, just like John, he gradually came through it and lived almost ten years on his own after her death. I am fairly certain that he would have seriously considered joining the CDF and I am quite sure that he would have enjoyed the prospect of a body without knee pain and an enlarged prostate!

We do meet a variety of other characters, although many of them only make brief appearances before their faces are eaten off by one alien or another. John’s initial clique from his first few weeks in the CDF designate themselves ‘The Old Farts’ and we follow their careers to a certain extent as John hears about their adventures, but we are mostly concerned with John and his experiences. The other characters that really distinguish themselves are Master Sergeant Ruiz, who prides himself on despising all of the new recruits when they start basic training, and Jane Sagan, who I will not discuss because she is a major spoiler if you want to read the book.

In fact the only thing about John that I found a little annoying was his prodigious ability to outperform his colleagues, even when he is working with Special Forces. He is amazingly lucky and unbelievably successful as a soldier. This is especially intriguing because of his previous life as a writer of tag-lines for an advertizing company: not what I would imagine is the ideal preparation for becoming a super soldier. I am not sure if this is unconscious Mary-Sueism, or a deliberate attempt to highlight how immortal most lead characters are in these types of stories. John certainly is the perfect CDF recruit, but I guess that the book would be a lot less interesting if he died on his first mission or did nothing more exciting than working in the CDF version of the mail room.

Of course, we have no real way of knowing if John’s experience is massively extraordinary. During basic training, the recruits are told that most of them will not survive their minimum two year term of service and that certainly seems to be true for many of the characters that John encounters. Perhaps most of those who finish their minimum term are as skilled or lucky as he seems to be. In many ways it seems that luck is the most important factor at play as we see plenty of excellent people die through no particular fault of their own. Some even die because they simply do not identify the potential danger of the alien life that they encounter.

We do meet some interesting, and believable, aliens. Mr Scalzi goes beyond the highly unlikely humans with bumpy foreheads and there is certainly no suggestion of inter-species romance. Indeed, the most human race that we encounter are only 1 inch high, which seems like an insurmountable height difference, no matter how much a pair might love each other! As well as alien bodies, we are shown totally alien psychologies, religions and spiritual beliefs. This is especially evident with the Consu, who engage in ritualized battles to consecrate planets. They are highly xenophobic and consider themselves contaminated once they have been in contact with an alien species. This causes them to conduct meetings with aliens using only convicted criminals, who are killed after the contact, incinerated and then the ashes are shot into a black hole. As I said, they are very sensitive about staying ‘pure’ . . .

All of this is fun and entertaining, but I do not want to leave you with the impression that this title has no commentary on the human condition. The CDF’s decision to use geriatrics to fight the good fight is certainly very interesting. Firstly, it makes us wonder about our own choice in that situation. Would we choose an extended period of old age, with failing health, or would we be tempted to have a second chance? I do not want to discuss how the CDF overcomes the physical failings of its recruits, but the Old Farts certainly have quite a lot of fun when the process is over. Secondly, it goes against our assumption that it is the young who sacrifice their lives for the good of society. The CDF claims that old recruits are more psychological stable and also have more understanding of what precisely they are fighting to protect. Whilst most of the colonials are actually from the overpopulated countries on Earth, like India and Norway (for some reason that I cannot understand), the CDF recruits that we follow are all from the US. However, they have all experienced family, friends and love: all the things that they know will be destroyed if they allow the aggressive alien species to run free through the galaxy. I am not sure that this is true, but it certainly a very thought-provoking idea.

In short, I can thoroughly recommend this as a witty and interesting journey into Sci-Fi. It is action-packed and mercifully light on scientific explanations whilst using possible advances in technology to explore some interesting ethical dilemmas. Plus it has a scene with soldiers stomping on inch-high aliens!

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