Today I’m taking a look at John Scalzi’s 2005 novel Old Man’s War, which was nominated for a Hugo in 2006. This was my first Scalzi, though I’ve been well-aware of his Twitter activity for a while, and I was excited to jump into one of his novels. My husband and I listened to it on audio book during our summer road trip, and in this post, I’ll be recounting some of our thoughts and reactions as we were listening.
The Plot: John Perry, a widower in his seventies, signs up for the Colonial Defense Forces in order to leave Earth and discover what else the universe might have in store. After having his consciousness transferred into a new, young body, he and other elderly recruits travel the galaxy protecting human colonies from hostile alien forces. One by one, Perry’s friends perish, but he is unexpectedly reunited with his late wife… or, at least, someone wearing his late wife’s face.
The World and Tone: In Old Man’s War, humans have spread throughout the galaxy, snatching up habitable planets as quickly as possible in fierce competition with alien races. However, on Earth, folks know almost nothing about what’s going on in the stars; the Colonial Union carefully controls information about galactic colonization and primarily recruits from Earth’s Southeast Asian populations for its colonists. For Westerners like John Perry, the only hope of seeing the stars is by signing on as a soldier – a point of complaint for some of the novel’s more xenophobic characters. In fact, John has no information about exactly how the CDF will get him fighting fit when he signs himself over to them for a period of enlistment of no less than ten years; he can only assume that they will repair his aging body in some way. For readers (at least for Ben and me), this divide between Earth-paradigm and CDF-paradigm is marked by a sudden change in tone. Up until John starts bootcamp, we were reminded of some of our least favorite tropes from early hard SF (Larry Niven’s Ringworld is always the one we go back to) where men, usually experts of some kind, sit around discussing basic science things while women provide some color commentary if they say anything at all. Old Man’s War features a former medical doctor opining about the possible treatments for aging the CDF will use on them and a physicist discussing the improbabilities of the space elevator that transports recruits up to the Colonial Union’s orbiting station – both men. Our protagonist is appropriately ignorant of such things to give him a plausible reason for us to hear it.
Then, John gets to bootcamp and things take a turn for the weird, starting with John’s drill instructor, who had, at a low point in his life, adopted a talking car advertisement mascot as his personal credo – an ad that John had created. This whole section contains nods in a few different directions – including to Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote copy for an ad agency, and David Lynch’s film Wild at Heart – and marks our move into an absurdist tone that continues until John’s breakdown during an assault on the Covandu, an alien race that stands only an inch high and that is best defeated by stomping.
But we move out of this absurdist tone again when John is stranded behind enemy lines during his next skirmish and is rescued by the Ghost Brigade, the CDF’s special forces unit made up of individual’s whose genetic donors died before their enlistment deadlines. Ghost Brigade soldiers are artificially aged and given expansive physiological and mental advancements, since their personalities are created from scratch without memories of previous bodies or lives to inhibit them. One of the soldiers that rescues John, Jane Sagan, was grown from his late wife’s DNA. The Ghost Brigade, with John riding along, is given the job of capturing or destroying a piece of technology from the alien Rraey on a former human colony. John and Jane survive but are separated following the battle, and the novel ends with John hoping for a reunion once their terms of service are concluded.
I really wanted to like this book. Scalzi’s Twitter persona had won me over enough that I kept hoping things would get better… but they never did, and I think the real problem was that this novel was trying to be too many things at once. Scalzi has talked about Heinlein as an influence, but for me the clear forebear of Old Man’s War was Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, especially in terms of its construction; in both novels, we follow protagonists from skirmish to skirmish while watching them confront new realities along the way. On the other hand, the middle section of the novel fit in with the tradition of the absurdist war novel ala Vonnegut, Pynchon, and Heller (and Haldeman’s Forever War fits into this tradition as well to an extent). The problem, though, is that by switching back out of that absurdist tone into something more in line with typical action movie aren’t-special-forces-types-cool, the novel undermines a lot of the interesting things it did in its absurdist phase.
Case in point: At one point, a new recruit joins John’s unit, a man who used to be a U.S. member of congress. Even before he’s seen his first battle, the politician goes about telling anyone who will listen about how the Colonial Union deploys the CDF too frequently without first searching for diplomatic solutions. The politician has been researching the alien race his unit is slotted to meet in combat, the Whaidian, and argues that they are an artistic, communally-oriented society with whom the Colonial Union could arrange a mutually beneficial treaty if they only tried. Other members of the unit, especially the veterans, write the politician off as ignorant and idealistic (and it doesn’t help that he takes the pedantic, condescending tone of old, white, male politicians everywhere), and no one is surprised when he attempts to talk the Whaidian and is brutally killed. At the same time, John’s current superior officer notes that the politician was right – that troops are deployed too quickly and diplomatic solutions are never sought. She argues, however, that the best way to enact change is for individuals to work within the system by climbing the ranks until they are the ones giving the orders. Her ambitions are cut short with her own death.
I got really annoyed with this whole sequence. First of all, I’m frustrated by the way that the only character voicing an alternative to military intervention is so unlikable; we are clearly supposed to roll our eyes at him along with the veteran soldiers. Secondly, this politician character raises some important points: are humans just blasting their way through the galaxy? Is this just Manifest Destiny all over again? There’s a lot of talk about survival in a hostile galaxy, language that has long been used to justify violent colonialism and ethnically-based violence. But those points are just swept under the rug as we move to focus on John’s relationship with the woman made from his wife’s genes and the particular affordances and drawbacks of spec-ops troops grown in vats.
But this has become a prominent trope in the last ten years: talk a lot about peace while ultimately blowing things up. To call out a few recent examples, the film Wonder Woman showed Diana on a quest to bring peace, but she killed a lot of people to do it, and the final sequence of the movie was just destruction porn (which is my biggest complaint with the contemporary wave of super-hero movies, a genre near-and-dear to my heart). Her lasso of truth isn’t used for truth-telling in the end; it’s used for smashing things. Or consider the recent run of Star Trek films, a franchise born out the idea of peaceful, diplomatically-driven exploration of the galaxy turned into a bunch of explosions. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two acts of Wonder Woman and I’ve liked what I’ve seen of the new Star Trek movies, but I’m troubled by the fact that we seem to have such a hard time imagining something other than armed conflict.
Final Thoughts: I’m not ready to write Scalzi off entirely – Old Man’s War was, after all, his first novel – but I was too troubled by the way we’re asked to just go along with the idea that our protagonist is a grunt with no power to enact any kind of change to really enjoy this book.