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Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

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There are some books you read for the story and some you read for the author. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, for me, fell into the latter camp.

Scalzi is revered in the science fiction community: he’s President of the Science Fiction Writers of  America, one of Tor’s most prominent authors, and the “proprietor” of the popular Whatever blog where fans can read humorous posts about his life, check out essays by other authors, and find links to interesting things around the internet. He’s also has a regular science fiction film column at AMC’s website, Film Critic.

Old Man’s War was John’s 2005 debut novel. He then went on to win the Campbell Award in 2006 largely based on the book’s success. It’s the first book in a four-part series, yet it acts as a stand-alone since John, at the time, didn’t know he would be writing more. As the title partially suggests, the story is space-based military science fiction with a septuagenarian cast. This was not a natural fit for me for two reasons: one, military sci-fi isn’t the first thing I grab off the shelf and second, as a 32-year-old woman, 70-year-olds in space didn’t immediately strike me as appealing. However, as mentioned, my interest was in the writer rather than in what was written.

I’d seen John at the New York Public Library in May for a event entitled “Speculating on Fiction”. The lineup, aside from Scalzi, included notable science fiction and fantasy authors Scott Westerfeld, Cat Valente, and Lev Grossman. Moderating the event was Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press and leading a four-piece band in original compositions while the authors read short selections from their work was violinist, fiddler, banjo-player, and fellow science fiction author Brian Slattery.

Scalzi closed the evening with a humorous story about the April Fool’s joke he played on Tor’s website. In March of 2011, was winding down their “Best SFF Novels of the Decade” reader poll when they noticed an overwhelming trend in the words used for titles. They then took those words and mashed them together to create titles for a faux trilogy. You can see the results here. On April 1st, John Scalzi wrote the supposed first pages to “The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The City of the Dead” and Tor announced it was publishing the new fantasy series. Some people took this seriously.

Scalzi had everyone in the room laughing, clapping, and contorting their faces into numerous expressions of sheer joy and amusement—including my own. From that moment I knew I had to read his books; and so, I began at the beginning, with a book I had misgivings about: Old Man’s War.

Before I picked it up off my “to be read” pile, I’d heard someone paraphrase a review, saying it was “Ender’s Game meets Cocoon”. Unfortunately, I can’t find either source but it was a vivid image that stuck with me and now having read the book I’m struck by its concise precision.

In Cocoon, the 1985 science fiction film directed by Ron Howard, a group of elderly people are rejuvenated by aliens, while in Ender’s Game, the novel by Orson Scott Card, a young boy thought to be the last hope for humanity is sent off to fight an intergalactic war. Old Man’s War is the story of senior citizens promised eternal youth in exchange for their service to the Colonial Defense Force, a military unit given the task of protecting Earth’s colonies on habitable planets in space.

The story begins with John Perry on his seventy-fifth birthday visiting both his wife’s grave and the army recruitment office. He and his wife, Kathy, had planned to join the Defense Force together but she had unexpectedly died of a stroke 8 years prior. And so, there he was, alone, signing up for a minimum of two years with the possibility of an involuntary eight year extension. He agreed to bear arms, fight enemies of the Colonial Union, undergo unspecified scientific procedures, and relinquish his US citizenship.

In what is something of an orientation period, before becoming young again, the new recruits on their way to the Colonial Station on board a colony ship, the Henry Hudson in this case, are fed an array of rich foods and given a wide berth to enjoy their last days of freedom. The interim has a feel akin to the first semester of college where friendships are forged quickly as a way of easing discomfort. John, along with a small group of men and women, form an instant bond, dubbing themselves the “Old Farts”.

From the start the characters have a realness to them, which is in sharp contrast to the unreal situation in which they find themselves. Their easy conversation over syrup-soaked waffles, brown-sugared bacon, and sausage gives them an air of familiarity, distinction, and likability—a clever trick on Scalzi’s part as now the reader is emotionally invested in their survival.

Once he’s placed in his younger body, John, like Ender in Ender’s Game, moves quickly up the chain of command, proving himself an astute leader capable of winning battles against the alien races vying for the same space. Also like Ender, John struggles with moral complexities. For John, inner conflict is brought on by killing those deemed “the enemy” while knowing that he is a colonizer, an intruder no more entitled to the land he’s asked to defend and conquer than those he’s asked to fight. Taking over planets is a dangerous business and in true satirical fashion diplomacy is roundly mocked during a comically horrifying scene. “Damn real live people, getting in the way of peaceful ideals,” says Perry amidst the resulting bloodshed.

The great thing about science fiction is that much of it is speculative. It’s within that realm of speculation that we’re free to imagine an array of “what ifs”. What if we lived forever? What if we could travel through time? What if there were a zombie apocalypse and we were the sole survivor? Old Man’s War asks us to imagine genetic engineering taken to the next level—a process where our mind and memories are transferred to a younger version of our physical selves and, in some cases, where new minds are placed inside the bodies of deceased recruits.

It forces the question, “what lengths would you go to for the promise of youth?” as well as asking readers to define what constitutes the self—the age old metaphysical mind-body problem: are we our minds? our bodies? a combination of both? Also inescapable is the question of imperialism and its ramifications. If life in outer space is feasible, and it turns out we’re not alone, are we doomed to a state of perpetual war?

Scalzi’s knack for economical, fast-paced, and humorous storytelling is at the heart of what makes this book such an enjoyable read regardless of one’s science fiction preference and age group. Not only do I recommend Old Man’s War, I also urge everyone to follow John on Twitter and read his blog. He’s a hero of the science fiction community for good reason and it’s about time you found out why.

Buy Old Man’s War at IndieBound
John Scalzi’s “Whatever” blog
John on Twitter @scalzi
Scalzi’s sci-fi film column on AMC Film Critic’s Best SFF Novels of the Decade
Science Fiction Writers of America website


Written by Gabrielle

October 11, 2011 at 5:23 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , , ,

7 Responses

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  1. Well, after that, I’m certainly in!


    October 11, 2011 at 11:44 am

    • glad i sold you on it. i definitely want to read Zoe’s Tale. i think it’s the 3rd book.


      October 11, 2011 at 12:56 pm

  2. Not sure the SF world precisely “reveres” John. Although we are taking up a collection to have him bronzed.

    P Nielsen Hayden (@pnh)

    October 11, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    • as in the Warehouse 13 H.G. Wells sense, I assume?


      October 11, 2011 at 12:55 pm

  3. I read this earlier in the year and I too was struck by the first 100 pages of the book, which were the strongest in my opinion. The “orientation” was fascinating and something I think we can all relate to, being throw into a new situation where you feel a bit lost and overwhelmed, only when you realize you’re not the only one that feels this way does it become easier to deal with. What surprised me most is how strong the romance elements were. The love story felt very natural and despite green genetically altered bodies, I found myself very invested in his search for his wife. Any thoughts on The Forever War by Haldeman. I’ve not read anything by him and I’ve heard a similar buzz. Great review, cheers.


    October 12, 2011 at 8:39 am

    • it was crazy how real and natural everything felt even though it was this outlandish sci-fi story. i was completely invested in the characters.


      October 12, 2011 at 9:07 am

  4. I did enjoy this novel, and the following novels in the series. They were given to me by my father, who reads only science fiction and fantasy. I read his leftovers when I need a break from the heavier stuff. It’s funny, I was just thinking about the scene where all the “old farts” get new bodies, how their first action is to embark on a ship-wide orgy. It made me wonder what it’s going to be like to get old. Will our bodies be all that’s holding us back?

    Joe Bunting

    October 14, 2011 at 12:05 am

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