Book Review: Old Man’s War (by John Scalzi)
John Scalzi’s 2005 sci-fi/war novel “Old Man’s War” made news recently when it was optioned by Paramount Studios, with director Wolfgang Petersen (“The Perfect Storm”) attached to direct. While it has shades of Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War”, Scalzi’s novel is, for the most part, a wholly original work that will both intrigue and entertainment with its fictional, but very well-realized future.
In the far future, our hero, John Perry, is 75 and retired; the love of his life, his wife Kathy, is dead, and he’s very lonely. Without much of a future left, he signs up to join the Army. Well, not really the Army, but the space army, if you will. The Colonial Defense Force, which exists entirely offworld, hidden away from Earth’s populace. Everyone knows that the CDF exists, that its singular goal is the advancement of the human species at all costs, and most important for men like Perry, the CDF have incredible technology, one of which allows them to recruit new soldiers of retirement age. This is one army where you actually HAVE to be 75 before you can even enlist. Everyone assumes this is because the CDF have technology that can make you younger again, since what army would recruit old farts to fight?
As it turns out, that’s partially true. The CDF does make you younger, but not in the way John Perry and his fellow retirees/enlistees think. Soon, our hero has his consciousness transplanted into the body of a green-ish clone grown from his DNA. It’s basically him at age 20, but with heavy alien modifications. He now has “cat’s eyes” that allow him to see better and has trademarked “Smartblood” running through his veins that basically makes him very hard to kill. New limbs can also be grown at a rapid rate if he loses them in battle, which he’s liable to do, since with a perfect new body comes a 2-year (that can be and usually is lengthened to 10) commitment to the CDF, which is in a constant state of war with, it seems, every other alien species in the known universe.
Heard of the Cold War and the Space Race? Well, this is the Uber Space Race. Everyone is trying to colonize all the planets they can, and the CDF and humanity are no different. This invariably results in constant warfare between the various alien species with interstellar starships. Imagine humans as the aliens of the recent movie “Battle: Los Angeles”, arriving on some alien world to take over their planet for their resources. The CDF, and our hero John Perry, essentially does that throughout the entire novel.
This, of course, brings up a lot of ethical and moral dilemmas for our hero John Perry, and which are thoroughly voiced and discussed at length throughout the book. Despite its premise and far-fetched technology, “Old Man’s War” takes a surprisingly very mature look at the military and its role in the universe. It would have been easy to fall back on the old standby of “evil military industrial complex” running rampant ala James Cameron’s EEEEEEEEEEVIL military characters in “Avatar”. Despite their actions, some quite horrendous, it’s never in doubt that the CDF is acting this way only because they’ve seen up close how the universe works, and are simply trying to maintain humanity’s place in the large scheme of things. Much of the CDF’s always-warring state is because of the need to protect its colonies and citizens, so in that respect there is some nobility here, even if the methods are not always squeaky clean. Best of all, there weren’t any cartoonish EEEEEEEEEEEEEEVIL military bureaucrats that I could spot.
“Old Man’s War” spends plenty of time talking about this issue and others, but since we’re seeing much of the action from John Perry and his fellow grunts, we’re not always privy to the overall “big picture” involved in all the wars and battles. Much of the book follows Perry as he enlists and goes through training camp, and it’s not until halfway through the novel that Perry even sees his first alien action as a soldier. The novel’s Third Act introduces a potential love interest that revitalizes John Perry’s quickly spiraling mood and darkening existence, as well as reveal a major threat to the CDF’s very existence in an alien species called Rraey. Until now we’ve only seen Perry going through various isolated pitch battles that mean little to the overall universe, but the final third of the novel does bring forth a “save the world” plot that it sorely needed.
“Old Man’s War” is the first of what was supposed to be a trilogy, but as it turns out, Scalzi has now written four books set in the same universe. Scalzi gets an A-plus for really paying attention to the science, though how much of it is reality and how much is the fancy technobabbling of a good writer is up for discussion. He does spend a great deal of time delving into the book’s science, though sometimes he does this at the expense of the alien species that Perry and his fellow CDF soldiers battle. The aliens pretty much fly by along with the chapters, which are all very breezy reads. “Old Man’s War” is written in the first-person, and John Perry is a very engaging narrator. Nerds interested in diving head-first into a world where the author actually spent a pretty good amount of time building everything from the ground up, including the technology, will love Scalzi’s attention to detail.
A film version of “Old Man’s War”, to be directed by Wolfgang Petersen (“The Perfect Storm”) is currently in the works, though fans of Scalzi’s book shouldn’t hold out hope of seeing it very soon. Hollywood options dozens of books a year with plans to turn them into movies (or in most cases, movie franchises), and it’s a rare thing when one of them finally makes it onto the big screen. This isn’t to say that Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” wouldn’t be one of the rare titles to survive what is commonly known as “Development Hell” (for the simple fact that most films that get “developed” in Hollywood end up dead and stuck somewhere in purgatory), since it’s chances are as good as any’s.