Monday, June 24, 2019

39. Old Man's War by John Scalzi

I had been meaning to read this book for a long time and finally found a used paperback copy while in Amsterdam at this odd coffee shop that had piles of books on the sides of a staircase for sale or trade.

Old Man's War was a big hit and put Scalzi on the sci-fi map so I won't go into too much detail about it.  Briefly, it's the future where earth is plodding along after a few wars, but more or less the same.  However, out in space, humans are constantly waging war with other races and colonizing planets they can win or keep.  The recruitment plan for the Colonial Defence Force is pretty unique.  When a human on earth reaches 75, they can choose to sign up where somehow they are made into space soldiers.  What actually happens to the recruits is kept secret and none of them ever return to earth.

The first part of the novel is the story of one of these recruits, widower John Perry, and part of the fun is learning what happens to him after he signs up.  The second part is him learning about the universe and all the various battles going on (also quite fun).  While there is no single storyline, there is a romantic narrative that I won't reveal that was also quite satisfying and emotionally fulfilling.

This book is heavily influenced/inspired by Starship Troopers (which I really need to read).  I question a bit its position on war and colonialism.  Though there is some interesting soul-searching on the why of what these soldiers are doing, it is all ultimately hand-waived away by the excuse that all the other races are violently colonizing planets as well.  It's a questionable thesis, given when this book was written in 2005 as America ramped up its foreign involvement in the wake of 9/11.  Despite this, it's not a simplistic or jingoistic book, just feels a bit too embedded in the American exceptionalism that defined this period.*  In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, this book is really fun reading.  It moves along zippily and there are some great aliens (all of whom get fragged) and excellent battle scenes with unique tactics.  I could imagine this was well read among actual troops.  I'll be keeping an eye out for his other books and the two sequels to this one.

*Doing some internet reading, I see this issue has been heavily discussed.  I found this essay to be a nice encapsulation of the debates and an excellent, more balanced and nuanced analysis of the book itself.

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