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Old Man's War by John Scalzi
Review by David Hecht
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0765309408
Date: 01 January, 2005 List Price $23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /


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On his 75th birthday, John Perry makes one final visit to his wife?s grave, and then reports to the recruitment office. Soon he?s taking a beanstalk space elevator to Low Earth Orbit where a CDF troop transport takes him and its collection of codgers off to begin basic training. Along the way they get outfitted with some basic equipment, including better than new bodies and a marine?s best pal - a rifle. Both are built tough to withstand the rigors of interplanetary war, and both are a soldier?s wet dream. In the case of their bodies, you may take that literally, considering that this is a coed armed force and that the author has taken the liberty of making everyone look like a recruiting poster character, on the theory that it promotes group cohesiveness. That?s an interesting theory, and one not without precedence, but unlike the Starship Troopers of yore, it also promotes a lot of shacking up and though combat is a high attrition environment, it serves to remind everyone about what they have to live, and fight for.

The central character, John Perry, makes a number of friends of both genders and fits well into the new life. Though the initial clique of ?Old Farts? gets spread across the vast human/alien conflict, the level of closeness he feels for them never exceeds that of siblings, or perhaps ?kissing cousins? in a few cases. What Perry misses most is the woman he was married to for most of his life, but who preceded him into the realm that even a starship can?t explore. Though they had both signed the agreement to join up, you have to live long enough to make good on that promise.

When Perry encounters the CDF?s special forces on a mission gone terribly wrong, and he?s about as near death as you can get and still come back to tell tales to your buddies, he sees his wife hovering over him?but wearing battle armor and leading a retrieval team. Whether it?s a trick of his mind or the ultimate trick of the service, he?s determined to find out.

The logic underlying the book?s premise is that old folks have nothing better to live for, and as bearers of a lifetime of experience are optimally suited to training as soldiers. Though the premise is plausible, it is not all that well leveraged: after some discussion of it in the early parts of the book, the ?toughening-up? section (boot camp, early combat missions) essentially glosses over exactly what relevant experience the old-timers bring to the party: in most instances, it?s shown to be not only useless, but positively adverse. Indeed, in the only instance where the protagonist makes a command decision that is autonomous?and which saves his life along with that of several others?he is sharply challenged to defend it in the aftermath. While ultimately his decision is both upheld and praised, it would take a tough man to be willing to make such decisions, if even one taken in extremis is so severely reviewed.

Another area that appears to exist only to provide dramatic tension is why there is an embargo on Earth, which you can?t return to after joining the CDF, and which has been left to stew in its parochial juices without the benefit of colonial technology. None of the alien races one encounters in the book seem to have a similar arrangement, but it may be an extension of a common theme in golden age SF, and indeed before, that the rational, ordered society of the future has to sever its connection with the squabbling faith based cultures of the past to flourish.

Old Man?s War takes an arc predictable for those familiar with the genre: after signing up and shipping out, we follow Perry as he undergoes the comprehensive process designed to turn him into a warrior. We meet a few other characters whom he encounters, and follow them through boot camp. We look over their shoulders as they are sent out to fight?and in some instances, die?facing exotic but deadly aliens. We vicariously experience the pleasure of peak performance as they turn their experience into seasoning; and we live through their fears, adversity, and cynicism as they adapt to their new way of life.

What the author brings to the table is a well-handled synthesis of the WWII perspective of Heinlein?s Starship Troopers and the Post Vietnam view expressed in Haldeman?s Forever War. Scalzi?s troopers? eyes are open to the foibles of humanity but are in a better position to comprehend the adversarial nature of competition for the finite resources of the universe. The Space Economists among you may choose to challenge this assertion, but not until you?ve read the book.

Old Man?s War is John Scalzi?s maiden voyage into the realm of SF and is refreshingly crisp at 320 pages. Writers who are published for the first time are blessed. Not only is their first published work likely to be better buffed than anything else they?ll ever write, but they also get better editors. From Michener to Heinlein, authors start with 300-page novels, and wind up?six or seven books down the pike?with thousand-page boat anchors that leave their characters adrift in a plotless Sargasso. While that?s not an inevitable end, it behooves you to catch Scalzi now, both to encourage this promising author and to enjoy his strong start.

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