A Book A Week: Old Man’s War

I have a dilemma: too little time to read and too damn many books on my “To Read” pile. So, this is the day that I do something about it.

Jonathan Coulton got a project going back when where he would write, record, and release a new song every seven days for a year. He called it A Thing A Week and it gave him a platform to establish himself as a geek song lord. I’m not going for anything that ambitious other than the ambition of purchasing all of JoCo’s work, which I’ve already done. But I do like the discipline of getting through and reporting on the texts one week at a time.

So, every Friday I’ll post a reader advisory of a book off my shelf and I’ll call it A Book a Week. It gets its own category and everything so you can set the pages to scan according to tags or category filters.

I figured I’d do a bit on Old Man’s War by John Scalzi to start. One because I like Scalzi’s work, and two I just finished the book so it’s still fresh in my mind. A not-too distant third is that the novel is a clear riff on Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, and I’ve been a giant Heinlein freak for a very long time.

Here we go:

John Perry has just turned 75. And he does what any other red-blooded American septugenarian might do on his birthday: he visits the grave of his dead wife, wraps up his affairs, and joins the Colonial Defense Forces.

Perry’s experience in boot camp gives us the basics. The CDF is Earth’s first and only line of defense in a universe that has nothing good to offer humanity except new planets to colonize, and the rare alliance with an alien race that doesn’t want to kill us. This has been going on for centuries, and we’ve learned a few important lessons while traipsing among the stars.

First, there are more of them than there are of us. Second, many of them don’t like us except as a potential hors d’hourve with dinner (if not as dinner). Third, even those alien races who do like us, think of us as too evenly matched to really fight with. Fourth and most importantly, they all want the same real estate we do and are willing to kill us for it.

The Colonial Defense Force is therefore very necessary and recruits from the best Earth has to offer: the oldsters.

It makes a wacky sort of sense. Older people have interpersonal skills, life experience, and job-related skills that no nineteen year old can hope to match. The main thing the kids bring to the party is the physicality of youth: strength, endurance, stamina, and-near limitless energy.

The CDF can fix that, though. We learn that the Colonial Defense Forces have access to technology that nobody on Earth ever even sees, because well, the folks back home don’t need it. The fancy stuff–the beanstalk and orbital space station, the skip drives, the starships, the weapons and armor, and especially the new genetically enhanced bodies that each soldiers is wired into during their orientation–is due to the trade the CDF has managed with other, more advanced, alien races. Humanity gets technology, yes, but it’s universally applied to colonizing and defending other planets. That includes defending said colonists, and that means a huge infantry.

Oh, and nobody who enlists, either as a colonist or as a soldier, ever sets foot on Earth again. Ever. One more reason to take the old ones rather than the kids. People with a lifetime’s worth of experience have a better basis from which to choose to leave.

It’s a fun read, both for the main character’s personality, and the way that Scalzi unfolds the universe for us. There’s not a lot of descriptive verse which works, as it’s an action story, but I happen to like that sort of thing. Similarly, space battles and boots on the ground sequences are told explicitly from Perry’s POV. None of this is problematic and it’s all fun. But Starship Troopers included enough of the wacky bureaucratic nonsense one expects of the military to give the story an extra dimension that I didn’t feel coming off the pages from this book.  On the other hand, the story engages to the point where that added bulk isn’t necessary.

Besides which the book’s main character is an old guy. As I plod through middle age, it’s easier to identify with older characters–one reason why I liked the movie Red so damn much–and I thought that Scalzi brought out that aspect of John Perry’s character nicely. You get old, you watch everyone you know die, then you sign up, get young again (Woo!), make some new friends who then die half a galaxy away . . . After a while, it gets to you. But in the meantime, you do your job, you check your rifle, and hope the guy leading your platoon knows his business.

This book came out in 2004; there has since been a sequel to it (The Ghost Brigades), but I’ll get to that a future post. I just got a copy of Scalzi’s Redhirts and need to deal with that first.

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