In the future, mankind has finally spread out into the stars. Humans from overpopulated countries around the world taking to the stars routinely to found colonies on numerous worlds. There has been no new “renaissance” from this otherworldly exodus on mother Earth however. No change in the sociopolitical norms. Nothing different in the daily life of an average citizens of the United States or any other industrialized country. Indeed, most pay little attention to the news that comes from beyond the globe. It does not affect their daily lives, which revolve around the normal things: getting married, going to work, raising children, and hoping to have enough savings to enjoy their old age.
And, really, there is no need for people of Earth to concern themselves with “out there” anyway. That is what the Colonial Defense Force (CDF) does. It manages and controls everything to do with other world colonization. It is their bureaucrats who decide upon the individuals who take to the stars. Their space station which orbits the Earth. Their skip drive ships that leave from that station to transport both people and materials out into the vastness of space. The CDF even controls the flow of information from those colonies back to mother Earth. Under their supervision, the spread of mankind to the stars has become almost hoo-hum; nothing to get excited about at all.
The only time when a citizen of a rich country even concerns themselves with the CDF is at age seventy-five. For at that age, you have finally become old enough to join the colonial armed forces. Why sit at home, feeling death creeping up upon you, and using up valuable resources when you could join the proud, the few, the colonial defense force!. You’ll never see Earth again, but in return, you will experience the unknown wonders of the galaxy and be given back your youth. How the CDF restores you back to twenty years old is a mystery, but it is a great incentive for seniors to get out of their recliners and head to their local CDF recruiter.
John Perry is one of those seniors who sees nothing for himself on Earth but a countdown to the grave. His beloved wife has already died, his only son is grown, and hanging around to be a granddad on traditional holidays doesn’t hold any allure. Thus, he heads off to the CDF to see something of the colonies and – more importantly – to recapture his lost youth. Maybe his second chance at life will produce as much happiness as his first trip did.
Once he rockets off into space for the nearest human colony, John begins to understand exactly what he has signed up for. The CDF was not lying when they intimated that he would be given back his youth. However, his old, worn out body must be discarded for a young, superhuman body that has been thoroughly tested and patented by the CDF technology division. This new body is genetically modified and enhanced by nano-technology and alien dna. (Not to mention that it is green.) But the worst part is that all these modifications of his frail, human form have been made for the simple reason that otherwise he would have no chance to survive his tour of duty in the CDF!
The galaxy is a very dangers place if you are a human, John learns. The CDF has been guarding the Earth all these centuries, protecting it not only from the aliens’ menace but also from the realization that the majority of the galaxy views mankind as a tasty snack. An animal to be captured, breed, fattened up and then savored at dinner with a nice, white wine. That is why the CDF has hidden the truth from people on Earth. Why they only recruit old people who have already had a chance to live their life. The reason John Perry and his friends “The Old Farts” onboard their outbound ship have to shed their ignorant bliss and become soldiers. Because now that Earth is in the rear view mirror, they are not on top of the food chain anymore!
I’m sure this sounds eerily similar to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers for many of you, but Old Man’s War is a very different flavor of science fiction novel: more tailored toward readers who do not like military fiction or scientific theory. Oh, there is a bit of both here: chapters dealing with military training, combat skirmishes and “theoretical” explanations of basic, future technology. However, Mr. Scalzi never spends much time with an subject, merely introduces enough information to keep one in the “know” before continuing on with the story of John Perry.
And a wonderful story it is. John Perry quickly becomes one of those ordinary guys who turns into a natural “hero”, not because he is gifted above his friends or finds some alien technology that gives him an edge but because he uses his wits and is lucky. His easygoing and sunny disposition is instantly likeable, as he seamlessly alternates between being a grieving old widower too becoming a funloving friend to the other “Old Farts” from his recruitment ship to just trying to survive as a grunt in the trenches of a war against vicious aliens. Mr. Scalzi writes each facet of our heroes story superbly, making a reader both understand and empathize with him all along the way of his second life.
Of course, there are problems with this novel; there always are. Here Perry becomes the person who always has the epiphany which saves the day. He is the guy who always survives the grenade event though he was closest to it. The foot soldier that is honored by his enemies even though he is a nobody in the trenches. When a plot line late in the novel involves a person from John’s past, it doesn’t surprise anyone that once again fortune has smiled upon him. Simply put, it is good to be John Perry in Old Man’s War, and that does distract from the overall tone of the narrative a bit.
Even with these annoyances, Old Man’s War was a joy to read. The writing was clear and concise, easy to consume, and John Perry’s journey from ignorant, protected Earthman to wise, veteran soldier of the Colonial Defense Force was a joy to read. I could barely put it down when I read it, and I am sure you will do the same if you give it a try. So stop reading this review already and go get a copy of the book.
CHECK OUT MY REVIEWS OF THE SERIES
THE GHOST BRIGADES
Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974) is also better than Starship Troopers 😉
I’ll have to give that one a try as well. I read Starship Troopers many years ago and was turned off by it. Might give it another go now, just to compare it with Old Man’s War, but I’ll also pick up The Forever War too. Thanks Joachim. Please keep teh great suggestions coming. 🙂
Yeah, it’s generally considered in the top 10 or SF works of all time — written as a ideological response to Starship Troopers (although Haldeman has denied it recently).
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I think the similarities to Starship Troopers are not only deliberate but due to the fact it’s an outright parody of it–just one of the best kind as you have to be a good example of the genre to make the most fun of it. In this case, making fun of the book’s rampant militarism and jingoism.
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