Wow, I’m going back a ways with this one, but John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War was optioned as a movie in 2011 although it now looks like it’ll end up as a SyFy original, like pretty much everything I’ve read lately, and I figured that since I had very little on my plate at the moment, I might as well take a look at it.
I will be honest and say that this is not the kind of book that I typically like. I’ve read a fair amount of military action sci-fi in the past and, almost without exception, I haven’t liked it very much. It’s just not the kind of thing I get into, the military lifestyle and shipboard combat, etc. I have, however, been told some good things about this so… what the heck, it’s only time right?
So here’s my take on John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War from way back in 2006. Will it break the mold? Let’s see.
In the future, on your 75th birthday, you can join the Colonial Defense Forces and leave the Earth forever, dedicating a decade of your life to protecting colonists for the benefit of becoming young again. John Perry and his wife planned to enlist, but when she dies before her 75th birthday, he goes alone, making friends among the enlistees and discovering that the universe is an incredibly dangerous place, but maybe, just maybe, there are things out there worth fighting for and John can make a difference.
Luckily, this didn’t fall into the all-too-predictable hyper-militaristic, violence for the sake of violence, humans rah-rah thing I’ve seen before, if it had, I’d have walked away. That’s really the kind of thing that I hate, the “I will follow orders because that’s what I do” thing, mixed with “humans can do no wrong” ideology that often comes with it. They feel like they were written by ex-drill instructors with crew cuts, Marine tattoos and a cigar clenched between their teeth and frankly, sorry to people in the military, but I really have no interest in that kind of thing. However, here, Perry has a sense of humor, he knows when to follow authority and when to go his own way and how to walk that very narrow line. Yes, there’s a lot of convenience at play here, Perry is always in the right place at the right time so he gets a bit of special treatment that keeps him from going down with a court martial or into a body bag and sometimes that overt convenience gets a bit hard to swallow, but there’s plenty of old fashioned skill and luck involved too and that keeps it from being too unbelievable.
That said though, Scalzi does play the stereotypes really heavily. The drill instructor with the heart of gold, and he even acknowledges this, tries to deny it, but goes through with it anyhow. All of the recruits are amazingly nice people and the very few that aren’t, he kills off early on. He spends so much time talking about Perry’s dead wife that, once she sort of shows up later, you know they’re going to fall for each other again. It was a bit too predictable for my tastes in a lot of ways. That doesn’t mean the characters aren’t interesting, just that some of it doesn’t ring particularly true.
I think that’s the biggest problem though, there isn’t anything overly special or groundbreaking here. So much of this is an homage to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers but it doesn’t do anything really amazing to rise above it. There was such potential and even though it’s a great adventure, I wanted there to be more to it. Yes, this is just the first book in the series and I am absolutely going to go on, but I still found myself a little let down that we got a bunch of alien skirmishes and nothing much bigger. Maybe the next book in the series will provide that. I hope so.