John Scalzi's debut novel, Old Manís War, has an intriguing premise, some interesting science fiction concepts, and a complete ability to ignore military SF cliches that usually turn me off from this kind of book. It's a wonderful little book, violent but not overly graphic (though there are a couple of scenes that go beyond that), and it is certainly worth all of the accolades that have been heaped on it. Only the fact that it is a bit slow to get to the meat of the action drags it down even a little bit.
Earth has reached the stars and been slammed back into isolation. Humans are out there colonizing the galaxy, but Earth itself is cut off from it, becoming almost a backwater. The Colonial Defense Force (CDF) ensures that this remains so. On the other hand, once you turn seventy-five, you can enlist in the CDF, go out and see the universe, and kill lots of aliens who are out to kill you, too. You'll just never see Earth again. John Perry has decided to take this route, and Old Manís War tells the story of his decision, and what he runs into when he gets out there. What he learns is beyond what he could ever have imagined. He gets a new, grown body (green and all) that will make him young again (even if he's not completely human anymore) and the extreme possibility of dying out in the mean universe. But he could be dead in ten years anyway in a broken-down body on Earth, so why not go out where his death means something? Will John be a successful soldier, not only surviving but rising in the ranks? Or will he just be more cannon-fodder for the human colonies?
Scalzi is on record (in a Usenet post when asked about his military
experience) as saying that he wanted Old Man's War to be accessible by his grandmother, who has no interest in things military. This meant that he wasn't going to spend a great deal of time on infantry tactics, technology, and the jingoism that many military SF novels embrace. The weapon of choice for the CDF is an adaptable rifle that fires five types of ammunition and can change on the fly, and he spends a bare amount of time making any explanations for the science of the situations he presents, such as the "skip drive" that gets everybody from Point A to Point B. It's the military SF novel for those who can't stand the genre, and I loved it for that.
Still, Scalzi doesn't completely avoid the science, and there are a couple of "theoretical" (as in, one of the characters who doesn't really know a whole lot about it is theorizing) explanatory scenes that seek to get this sort of thing out of the way. I found this appropriate given the situation that Scalzi presents. The humans who are enlisting don't know any of this stuff; the CDF keeps humans ignorant of it intentionally, so Scalzi is able to gloss over it. While I did find it appropriate, I also thought that these occasional theorizing scenes slowed the book down much more than they should have (though certainly much less than they would have if they had been fully explained, and yes, I'm speaking to you, Mr. Weber!).
Scalzi gets the characterization down perfectly, creating a great "hero" in Perry. He's intelligent and he rises through the ranks fairly quickly by using his brain. The friendships that Perry forms when he first enlists seem very logical, as these people have been thrown together into a strange situation with no visible support apparatus. Even the fact that the first thing these older people do when they get young bodies is to enjoy themselves with as many people as possible is certainly understandable, and Perry's first scene like this is hilarious (though none of it is actually shown, for those prudes among us).
There is only one characterization misstep, and I'd say the good and the bad of the character even out. Perry's drill instructor, Master Sergeant Ruiz, is hilariously portrayed by Scalzi, with all of the typical movie drill instructor attitude. Even better is that he acknowledges the drill instructor stereotype, insisting that the recruits get that stereotype out of their heads because he is not going to gain "grudging respect" for them. He doesn't like any of them. This is all refreshing, acknowledging the clichťs and then moving past them. Unfortunately, after his brilliant opening scene, we don't see a lot of him, and the description of subsequent events make him seem like the drill instructor we are all familiar with. Only his last scene with Perry really moves beyond this.
The other small problem with Old Manís War is that it takes a long time to get through the setup of the setting. This is mitigated by the entertaining way in which Scalzi writes these sequences, but it takes almost half the book before Perry actually gets into the action. The rest is his journey to the CDF and the establishing of the galaxy and his place in it. It is only a small problem because Scalzi does make it interesting, but I wish some of it could have been condensed.
Overall, Old Manís War is a wonderful book, one that I raced through because I was loving every minute of it. If you absolutely hate the genre of military SF, then you may find that even this book won't be enjoyable. But if you're just annoyed with a lot of the military SF that's out there, give this one a shot. It's an excellent debut novel, setting up an interesting situation with characters much more compelling than others of the genre.