Book Review: “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi

The big three books of military science fiction are “Starship Troopers” by Robert Heinlein, “The Forever War” by Joe Haldeman and “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi. All of these novels won the Hugo Award.

Scalzi’s novel is the first person narrative of John Perry and his tour of duty with the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF). It is here that Scalzi overturns his first trope. Instead of hormone fueled adolescents, the CDF only recruits 75 year-olds. Perry leaves the Earth simply because he has nothing to really hold him there as his wife is dead and he is no longer really connected to his remaining family.

The CDF uses bio-engineering and nano-technology to rejuvenate and enhance their recruits. It would be a bit much to give away the exact methods for this process, but it involves DNA, cloning and nano- computers and results in greatly enhanced strength, speed and endurance of the CDF soldiers.

In the universe of “The Old man’s War”, Earth is a backwater. It is used as a recruiting ground for colonists, mostly from poor third world countries and for soldiers, mostly from richer first world countries. However once you leave Earth you are not allowed to return ever. The book’s universe is also filled with big bad aliens, most of which seem to have a taste for human flesh.

Perry undergoes basic training and then ships out to fight humanity’s alien enemies. The battle scenes are exciting and well written, with each alien species using unique weapons and technology. Perry is a good soldier despite being a pacifist on earth and advances up the ranks to captain before the end of the novel.

Scalzi’s dialog is sharp and rings true; his narrative is tight. The book avoids long diatribes about war and peace or politics. Scalzi’s characters are sympathetic and real. The reader really cares who lives and dies. Yet not all of them are brave and caring, some are real jerks. This is also rings true. Every military unit or job has its fair share slackers and loudmouths. The book is just the right length; it engages the reader without taxing them with techno-babble or philosophy.

“Old Man’s War” is a very fine first novel and was deservingly won the Hugo Award. The novel spawned a direct sequel, The Ghosts Brigades that was published in 2006, and was followed by two other books, The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale.

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