In an unspecified future, humanity has colonized the universe. One tech company holds the key to all of the transportation and only allows American citizens (winners of the last massive global conflict) passage to the greater universe on their 75th birthdays. These men and women sign up for a two to 10 year term as soldiers in the Colonial Defense Force, where they will somehow receive their youth and health back just for enlisting. It’s far more complicated than John Perry or any of his fellow recruits ever imagined.
John Scalzi crafts the framework for a fine science fiction series in Old Man’s War. The slow introduction of hard sci-fi elements is handled perfectly. The recruits, who have never encountered the alien technology before, speculate about how it works, what it is, and why it’s been kept secret from anyone who is not traveling to the colonies. These are some of the more engaging moments in the novel because they feel the most realistic.
That isn’t to say the actual plot is unbelievable. It’s just a little under developed. You can tell Scalzi was planning for more entries in this intergalactic war and held back. The first part of the novel, focusing on John Perry and his fellow recruits being inducted into the CDF, is the most exciting. Parts two and three focus on the actual battles and they’re just not as thrilling. Scalzi is so focused on John Perry that the ever-growing stack of named (and deceased) recruits doesn’t feel significant.
It’s an odd case of sabotage necessary to set up the series. It’s drilled into the recruits’ heads early on that the vast majority of them even have a chance of finishing out their first two years of service; none of them will be allowed to retire from armed combat at that point. The aliens are so technologically advanced and varied in their styles that very few people will even come close to surviving multiple battles. The danger of the Old Man’s War needs to be established, but there’s no chance to connect to anyone but John Perry.
John Perry, himself, isn’t a very compelling protagonist. He’s basically a Larry Stu. He starts out quite believable and quickly turns into the One. When a drill sergeant known for hating everyone treats him (even for a few paragraphs) as a God for writing copy for his favorite advertising mascot on Earth, the novel starts to lose believability. It only gets worse when John is the genius soldier the CDF needs, figuring out the perfect strategy for survival or conquest in every single mission he’s on while his peers die one by one at their own hands. Thank goodness some of the one chapter and dead characters are much more interesting or the book would be a total chore.
The Larry Stu of it all isn’t the big problem. A new company of troops is introduced in part three that really changes the dynamics of the novel in good and bad ways. It’s the last bit of hard sci-fi in the novel–a troop of soldiers genetically engineered from dead recruit’s parts and born with super soldier bodies, all military knowledge, and no personality of their own–and it’s a great concept. John’s…obsession with a technically six year old soldier is a little questionable. They’re all in adult bodies, but Scalzi goes for broke painting these special troops as mental children who’ve never experienced anything but war. It’s uncomfortable in ways I don’t think he anticipated.
Still, despite the shallow characters and awkward social scenarios, Old Man’s War is an engaging read. It works as social commentary and has enough going on to make it a fast and engaging read.
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