Monday, December 8, 2014

Review of Old Man's War by John Scalzi

I had the misfortune of seeing Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation before reading Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.  I say misfortune as, in the context of the novel Verhoeven’s perspective adds layers of meaning beyond the mere senseless violence it appears as on the screen.  A critique of blindly following government command and the visceral aspects of war Heinlein conspicuously skipped over, it’s impossible to fully appreciate the film without having read the novel.  But such is not the case with John Scalzi’ Old Man’s War (2006).  Though Scalzi likewise uses Starship Troopers as as a mold, the story he produces is an ideological fence-sitter that adds little in the way of political commentary, and thus is best appreciated at the screen level.  Humor and the values of friendship and marriage the ideas shining faintly through the stereotypes of science fiction, the novel gets in a few passing shots at war, but at the same time peace, resulting in an mainstream genre offering that’s easy on the eyes but lets Heinlein off easy. 

It’s the future and mankind has populated the stars.  Earthlings not the only sentient beings inhabiting the universe, they gain and lose interstellar ground as much as the next species in an eternal fight for resources, fertile colonies, and lebensraum.  Soldiers continually needed to replace those lost on the front lines protecting humanity’s interests, the elderly on Earth, once they reach 75, have the option to live on until death or to be recruited with the promise of new bodies and new youth.  But a chance at a second life has a caveat: they must be willing to sign away all rights to themselves and their former existence, and understand that life on the front lines might bring their existence to an end faster than old age might.

His wife recently passing away, John Perry is one such 75 year-old.  Not wanting to die, and having nothing left to live for on Earth, he signs the papers and is whisked away to a waiting vessel.  Meeting a wide variety of geriatrics on board, he settles in with a group calling themselves the Old Farts.  Their second youth arriving in a surprising way, and with a few interesting side effects (i.e. a brain pal), they are soon training to be infantry—complete with a loud-mouthed drill sergeant and a super-rifle.  But it’s not until actually being on the front lines that the reality of what they’ve signed up for hits home for the Old Farts.

Classic military science fiction, Old Man’s War is everything one expects in the genre with few twists (I counted two).  Presented in simple terms, space ships, slavering aliens, lost love, wooden dialogue, a modest, quick-witted hero who rises through the military ranks, space battles, explosions, etc. are the stage.  One sees obvious seeds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Williamson, Edmund Hamilton, and indeed Robert Heinlein sown throughout the story.  Save those two twists, the sum total does not rise above their efforts. 

The first twist is that an elderly man is the novel’s hero.  At least he begins the novel an old man.  Never losing the mindset, however, John Perry’s apple pie and coffee—Golden Age American personality—is a change from the typical heroes in space opera of old.  Or is it…  The second is the anti-war sentiment.  At least the attempt at anti-war sentiment.  Scalzi trying to both empathize with military men caught in war while criticizing the system which got them into the situation to begin with, he laughs at diplomacy and peacekeepers and pokes holes in Manifest Destiny logic, but all the while pushes his hero through the classic hurdles of: the universe is a great big dangerous place out to kill you, so best bring a (big) blaster and shoot first, ask questions later.  If the novel were appearing before a formal debate on the merits of military deployment, Scalzi would be in the peanut gallery.  Thus, right wingers and left wingers can read the book with little reaction, neither rushing out to use the novel as propaganda material. 

To be fair, Scalzi may fail to present a consistent political ideal, but he makes up for this in the regard Perry holds for his deceased wife and the strange perspective he later has of their relationship when circumstances in the galaxy spring a big surprise on him.  The apple pie and coffee view one which emphasizes partnership (I can’t say family life as at the beginning of the novel Perry says goodbye to his son and never looks back), it’s easy to sympathize with someone who wants a simple life when war is thrown their way.  If there is any message to the novel, it’s the irreplaceable value of our spouses.

Less ideological and more entertainment oriented, Old Man’s War has its share of humor. Whether or not it is appealing depends on the reader, naturally.  Scalzi gets mileage out of toilet humor (fart and pee, fart and pee, hee hee hee!), but where he actually accomplishes something are the elderly jokes.  Never presented in a deprecating manner, he rubs elbows with our aged fellow citizens, fully empathizing their situation, all the while lightly tickling them with a few innocent fingers that would bring a smile to the face of a person of any age.

Regarding style, Old Man’s War is written in transparent, easily accessed style.  Scalzi leaves nothing written between the lines.  And while the result is a cleanly written story, there is one aspect that has me tearing my hair out: the staggering hills of speech tags.  The following is an actual, unaltered excerpt from the novel:

    "All right," I said.
    "Okay," she said. "Good. I'm going now. Sorry about throwing you across the room."
    "How old are you?" I asked.
    "What? Why?" she asked.
    "I'm just curious," I said. "And I don't want you to go yet."
    "I don't know what my age has got to do with anything," she said.
    "Kathy's been dead for nine years now," I said. "I want to know how long they bothered to wait before mining her genes to make you."
    "I'm six years old," she said.
    "I hope you don't mind if I say you don't look like most six-year-olds that I've met," I said.
    "I'm advanced for my age," she said. Then, "That was a joke."
    "I know," I said.

Enough, I said.  Speech tags are understandable when more than two people are in dialogue to assist identifying who is saying what or how, I said.  But there are times they are not necessary, I said, and there are even less times it’s necessary when only two people are conversing, I said.  Yet Scalzi plugs ahead: he said, she said, she said, he said.  Love is certainly lost, I said. 

In the end, Old Man’s War is a variety of science fiction tropes blended into smooth vanilla of mild flavor.  Scalzi taking zero conceptual risks, he works within the familiar reaches of military sci-fi, space opera, and planetary romance to tell a story more retro than contemporary.  In keeping, the characters, while singular to the story and capable of evoking a response, generally move to the rote of genre.  There is a light anti-war motif (everything about the book is lite, in fact) resulting in a few pokes at peacekeepers and government institutions who foment war for war’s sake. But never is an agenda beyond ‘friends and spouses are important’ developed in depth.  Dialogue simplistically written and a plot that pulls no surprises, the novel is, unsurprisingly, an average read that will appeal to those looking for an uncomplicated, light-hearted romp in space.

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