No. 17: Old Man’s War
A couple of years ago a relative dropped a book on her kitchen table, declaring that she refused to read any more. “I couldn’t get past the first five pages.” In one of my semi-frequent adolescent moments I realized that I must know what was so disagreeable. I picked up the book, John Scalzi’s The Android’s Dream, and enjoyed it immensely.
Last week I was wandering through Barnes and Noble and came across that familiar cover and remembered the book fondly. I decided to pick up Scalzi’s first novel, Old Man’s War. The backcover tease would have been enough if I knew nothing of his work: “John Perry did two things on his seventy-fifth birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.”
A few centuries into Earth’s future (we don’t find out quite when) the senior citizen is the most prized possession of the Colonial Defense Force, the military establishment tasked with keeping humans alive in the universe.
Humans are colonizing space in an environment that is the antithesis of that envisioned by Gene Roddenberry. From the mouth of the Master Sergeant: “There are four trillion members of other sentient species and they all want to turn you into a midday snack!”
To put your mind at ease, there is battle, some of it is graphic, and it is all mind-bending to some degree. Scalzi is imaginative and provocative, especially when it comes to what seems to be the major theme of both Old Man’s War and The Android’s Dream: what it means to be human.
In this story we have a protagonist who is physically less human than he once was, and who goes through a period of fearing the loss of his psychological humanity as well. He and the others have to face and answer for themselves questions about how they are human, how human they are, and how much it really matters.
Other issues Scalzi raises include youth and aging, death (natural and otherwise), purpose, and identity. Some with more subtlety than others.
Though at times he tends to tell more than show, the story is entertaining, the themes are probing, and the writing is great. This is the first in a series of four (so far), so there are some elements that you can be certain of from early on—like you could be certain that a team from the Enterprise would always return with Kirk, but without an unnamed security guard or two—but there are a great many surprises along the way.