BOOK REVIEW: “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi (2005)

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Best. Fightin’. Space. Marine. Book. Ever.

No, seriously: Best one ever.

Yeah, yeah, I hear you, I hear you prattling on in an immediately-irritating nasal drone: ‘Well, there’s an awful lot of fightin’ space marine books, it’s a well trod subgenre, and the likelihood that you’ve read enough of it to really make a sound value judgment, much less presume to judge the - “ Shut up, ok? Just shut up. Seriously. This really *is* that good of a book. And despite the fact that there are fifty berjillion ‘Infantry in Space’ books, for my money, there really are only two worthy of any real consideration: Starship Troopers (1959) and The Forever War (1974).

Despite its unqualified classic status, despite it having been at one time or another required reading at all the service academies *and* The Citadel *and* VMI, the fact is that Starship Troopers is a dog of a book. There’s not much of a plot, and such as there is gets told deliberately out of synch so it’s hard to follow, and doesn’t get in the way of the books’ didactic core. Though it’s tarted up as a space adventure book, “Trooper” is basically a lengthy (Though affable) discourse about how the military, the government, nay, the universe would be run if Robert Heinlein had his way. Screw Plato, this is Heinlein’s Republic. It’s replete with the endless Mary Sue-ism that runs rampant through all his main-sequence novels, the obligatory ’everybody’s an idiot but me’ condescension, and while there are undoubtedly some cool ideas and neat toys in here, it is not really very entertaining. There’s also something that rubs me the wrong way about a book written by a Naval officer who never saw combat, writing an entire novel telling Marines how to fight.

The only other classic worth a darn in this category is “The Forever War,” which is an honest-and-for-true science fiction novel, as opposed to a self-obsessed political theory jerk around fest. It was actually written as a riposte or counterpoint to “Trooper,“ by an actual real honest-to-God Marine who got his leg blown open in Vietnam. It is better written, better paced, more logical, more realistic, far dirtier, far funnier, and while the training sequence in the start of the book does go on way too long, it is just a frackin’ wonderful book on every front. Partially this is veracity of a guy who’s actually fought, partially this is because Joe Halderman played some very clever games with gender roles in the book, partially it’s just that Halderman is a better writer. Primarily, though, I think it succeeds because it is, at root, a human story. It’s got a protagonist we care about, characters who react and interact in realistic ways, an actual play of emotions. It’s about the human condition. There are people *in* Heinlein’s novel, but they don’t act, talk, nor think like anyone you or I have ever met, but then the story isn’t about that, it’s just some garrulous old navy coot in the corner of the VFW muttering into his beer about how the world would be better if he were appointed grand exalted grand poobah of the universe.

“Old Man’s War” is better than both of them. By far.

Notice I didn’t give into hyperbole and say something stupid like “It’s better than both of them combined,” that’d be stupid. “Forever War” is brilliant, and Trooper remains a very smart book, even if it isn’t a very good one. But “Old Man’s War” is better than either of them, though, and by a good margin.

Why? Well, not to shortchange anybody, but Scalzi is a better writer than Heinlein or Halderman. His style is what Harlan Ellison once called “Transparent,” (though he wasn’t talking about Scalzi when he said it) That is to say Scalzi does a lot of very clever, dramatic, manipulative, premeditated things in this book, but his skill is such that he never draws attention to himself. He’s playing you like a piano, but he does it so deftly that you don’t notice he’s playing at all. Having last read “The God Engines,” I’m here to tell you the man’s got some serious dramatic range as an author. He’s the kind of talent who could easily grab you by the spiritual nads and piledrive your heart into the numinous dirt with bombast. Metaphorically speaking, of course. What’s impressive about him, though, is that he *doesn’t.* He’s not showing off. He’s not preaching or horrifying or educating or any kind of narrative ‘-ing’ you’d care to name; it’s just an intimate little story and he’s telling it only to you, judging your responses, and adjusting it to best suit your level. If you’ve never tried it, believe you me, brother, it’s a damn hard trick. Most authors spend a lifetime trying to develop a recognizable voice. Some accomplish it. Far fewer get so secure in their voice that they can step out of the way and let the story tell itself without any ‘Hey, look at me, ma! I’m writin’!” claptrap.

And did I say it’s an intimate story? It feels that way, but it’s the biggest intimate story you’re likely to stumble across this year: endless war, five major alien races, crazy culture shock, technological geegaws galore - all very clever and/or funny, I must say - genuine pulse-pounding drama, pathos, hearstrings plucked, but in a poignant way, not in a cloying one. Genuinely interesting, too. What keeps it from spiraling out of control is, of course, the protagonist: John Perry. Perry is a marvel. He’s an everyman for whom the obligatory guy-next-door status doesn’t feel like a limitation. You like him. He feels normal without feeling boring. There’s a hint of ‘special’ to his mundanity, though you can’t really point to anything and say “Well, there’s his super power which renders the book implausible crap.” He’s just so darn likeable. Not only is he someone you know, he’s someone you probably wouldn’t mind being. And while there’s a sadness that pervades him throughout much of the story, it’s a functional, reasonable one, just enough of an undertone to give him some emotional heft. It just all feels right, and, as I’ve said, it feels effortless.

Without giving too much away, it follows your general fightin’ space marine formula: Average guy joins the space marines, goes through basic training, makes friends, gets involved in various adventures, finds love and/or sex (ideally with the same person, but that’s not mandatory), and all the threads tie together in some clever way at the end. Ah, but the hooks! He joins the infantry at age 75! Despite having been an interstellar species for more than two centuries, earth plays no real role in interstellar life, save as a source for soldiers and colonists. Everything else is irrelevant. A nebulous interstellar government takes care of everything for all humans off earth, and it’s implied (but not stated) that this agency has been kinda’ artificially keeping earth technology and society at more-or-less early 21st century levels for generations. Their world is very much like ours, excepting maybe slightly homier.

This serves to accentuate the Alice-in-Wonderland reality shift when John leaves earth and joins “The Real World” and finds out what life is really like. The realities of life beyond our poor spot on the map are just disturbing, and much of the novel revolves around John un-learning the experiences of a lifetime which, ironically, are what allow him to live. In the process he meets an old (in several ways) woman who’s somehow managed to avoid having any experiences in her lifetime, and between the two of them they find a little island of stability in the transuranic explode-o-rama that is galactic realpolitik. See what I said about how clever the author is? It’s all shoot-shoot bang-bang cool! Neato! And then he slips that kind of stuff in on you. You don’t even notice it until after the fact. You’re thinking about the book a day or a week later, and some plot point hits you - “Man, that was an incredibly unlikely coincidence” - or - “That was just too easy” - but he pulls the strings so deftly that even when the story forces itself artificially in one direction or another to do plot stuff, you don’t mind. There’s a level of….I dunno…truth? There’s a level of truth that underpins it to the point where contrivances are allowable because we’re so invested in the feel.

Also: It’s a hell of a page turner, and did I mention it’s pretty funny? This is really, really, really good book and my only regret is that it took me six years to getting around to reading it.

So: why is it better than the other two classics? Well, I think ultimately because Starship Trooper was a book by an engineer who longed to turn civilization into a machine. Forever War was a book by a marine who was rightfully appalled to be a cog in that machine. Old Man’s War, though, is about a guy who somehow becomes even *more* human as he becomes a killing machine.

I’ve been looking for a new favorite author since JG Ballard died. I’m not absolutely sure I’m gonna’ give that to Scalzi, but he’s definitely on my very short callback list.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

Oh, my, yes! Apart from a one-line mention of a creepy bisexual menage-a-trois, there’s nothing here to give offence. There’s a slightly uncomfortable discussion of an adulterous affair, but I think it’s *supposed* to be a little uncomfortable, and it just adds to the overall depth of the character. While I know for a fact that Scalzi isn’t on ’our’ team, there’s much in this book that Conservatives will find reassuring. Not the least among which is the notion that well-meaning liberalism is completely out of place when faced with the nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw realities of life. There’s a sense that you have one set of rules you use at home, and another more pragmatic set you use abroad. There’s one of the best Biblical discourses I’ve read in years, even if the context is deliberately calling many of us on the carpet in sarcastic fashion. Heck, there’s even a gay character who’s immediately likeable in a non-propagandistic way. It’s just a really, really, really good book.

(The one irony being that this is the one Fightin' Space Marine book that real-world Marines probably won't like it as they get made fun of pretty viciously in it)

A couple years back I reviewed “The God Engines,” Which I raved about, and then said “No conservative should ever read this.” That’s true. I stand by that: it’s a book that’ll hurt you if you’re the kind of person that believes in certain things. Well, in this case I’m happy to be able to give an almost-completely-reservation-free recommendation for “Old Man’s War.” It’s a modern classic.

SPECIAL NOTE:

I’d like to thank my friend Gin Rummy, who nagged me for half a decade to read this thing. He went so far as to give me a copy, then gave me a *Second* copy when I’d lost the first one. I don’t know why I couldn’t get myself going on this one sooner, despite his rave (And entirely accurate) reviews, but I’m happy I finally did read it. I’m also happy to point out my idiocy: Thank you Gin, you were right.

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