Saturday, March 2, 2013

Book Review: Old Man's War

In order to write a review of John Scalzi's Old Man's War, I must first make a confession: I've never read anything by Robert A. Heinlein. Just about any time you see a mention of Old Man's War, you'll see it compared to Heinlein's work. I've seen the Starship Troopers movie, but I don't know if that makes it better or worse. So, while I can't compare Old Man's War to what's come before, I can say this: it's an excellent sci-fi novel that blends humor, action, and science into a hugely readable whole. I highly recommend it, whether you've read Heinlein or not!

The premise of Old Man's War is that residents of Earth are offered an opportunity on their 75th birthdays: they can enlist in the Colonial Defense Forces and go fight on other planets. The downside is that they can never return to Earth. Nobody knows the details, but everyone assumes that the CDF somehow makes their recruits young again. After all, old men and women aren't much good for fighting wars.

The novel follows the journey of John Perry, a man who enlists in the CDF. Along the way, he meets several charming, witty, and interesting fellow recruits, and they form a group of friends called the Old Farts. The conversations between the Old Farts are one of the most humorous parts of the novel, as they approach each new revelation with the quirky wisdom of old folks.

Not every character in the novel is charming, though, and one of the most memorable is Master Sergeant Ruiz. Ruiz initially comes off as a stereotypical master sergeant, chewing out his recruits with relish. Then he reveals the reason he acts that way, and it's not what you (and Perry) expect. Ruiz may not have a large part to play in the novel, but his scenes were probably my favorites.

When it comes time to protect humanity from aliens, Scalzi proves that he's just as good at writing action as humor and dialog. The action scenes are gripping and punchy. The aliens themselves are endlessly inventive. Given that Old Man's War is a novel, Scalzi doesn't have to worry about fitting actors into rubber suits when designing his aliens, and he knows how to take advantage of that. I especially admire the way he creates an impression of each alien race in the reader's mind with a few careful details, without ever pausing the narration for a paragraph-long description of every body part of each alien race.

As strange as the alien races are, each is believable, partially thanks to their technology. Since Old Man's War is science fiction, Scalzi doesn't skimp on the science. It would be too spoilery to go into detail, but Scalzi has clearly put a lot of thought into this setting, and much of the technology is based on real scientific concepts. The science mixes well with the witty chatter between the Old Farts, and then figures into the fighting, too.

Old Man's War is the first novel in a series, and I am planning on reading the sequel, The Ghost Brigades, next. I am looking forward to it!


  1. So, what kinds of conflicts does Perry end up facing? Or is that too spoilery? Either way, sounds like a good twist on a familiar sci-fi story!

  2. Well, the Heinlein comparison can tell you that it's military sci-fi, so the CDF forces have to fight alien armies. I won't go into it more than that, since it's definitely something you should find out for yourself!