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.

“A Novel About an Electronic Book in an Electronic Format That Pretends to be a Paperback”

Ben Cameron at the Huffington Post has noted an essential difference between print volumes and their electronic versions: rules of process, i.e., how they get used by readers.

In his introduction to the 2009 edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies praises the tattered old paperback copy of Douglas Adams' sci-fi classic that he carried around in his back pocket in his school days. I had one too and I loved it just as much.

Davies ends his introduction with, "Maybe ebooks are going to take over one day, but not until those wizzkids in Silicon Valley invent a way to bend the corners, fold the spine, yellow the pages, add a coffee ring or two and allow the plastic tablet to fall open at a favourite page."

In a word, it's the experience incurred in one's use of a thing that defines its substance.  And it gets worse:

There are two ironies at work here. First, I read that introduction on the ebook version on my Kindle, which the publisher digitised straight from the print version of the book without a second thought. And second, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the book that Adams' book is about, is an ebook. Here is how Adams describes The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "…a device which looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press-buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million 'pages' could be summoned at a moment's notice."

He has just described my Kindle.

Ironies aside, Cameron actually does an enormous service in thinking about his paperback turned e-book this way. He informs us that E-Books have rules of engagement that print volumes don't.

The rule of process for a paperback are easy:

Step 1: Pick up.

Step 2: Open.

Step 3: Read.

Step 4: Close when finished (Optional).

Step 5: Place in a secure location (Recommended).

The rules of process for an E-Book are rather more complicated:

At the moment publishers are quickly churning out ebook versions of the mainstays of their print backlists. But more often than not they are doing so without giving a moment's thought to making even the simplest of changes to the printed book. So we end up with an introduction to an ebook that sings the praises of paperbacks or ebook cover images taken straight from printed books that boast of illustrations – when the illustrations have been stripped from the ebook editions.

Rule 1: the contents do not always reflect reality.

That's a cheap shot–there are plenty of print volumes that don't reflect reality due to their age, the limitations of the author, or the fact that they're not meant to inform as much as propogandize–but it bears thinking about. A more precise statement would be that the contents of an E-Book does not always reflect the medium. Part of that is human nature. It's just plain impossible to keep with with every new thing that presents itself and very little of the new apps, coding languages, or gadgets take advantage of how people think or behave. We adopt to the tech, not the other way around. Meanwhile a publisher needs to make money now, not lay the groundwork for what will be happening in five or ten (or fifteen or twenty) years. Shortcuts are taken, expediency wins over c0ntext. That thirty year old introduction is taken verbatim from the print edition and slapped into the electronic version. Stuff happens.

Rule 2: E-Books are naturally fragile.

I think that Russell T. Davies said this better in the above quote than I could. Print books don't break when you drop them, short out when you spill coffee on  them, or disappear into the ether when a publisher stops producton. E-Books (and their readers) are known to do all that. Show me a Kindle that has survived as well as the Edwin Smith Papyrus and I'll rethink my position.

Rule 3: E-Books are often published as afterthoughts.

This is starting to change as publishers and editors who are used to working primarily with electronic editions come into their own. That said, when the big five publishers and their subsidiaries try to do this, the results are rather like what Cameron describes in the case of Douglas Adams: a direct port into a what is essentiqally a giant PDF. At the moment, small press publishers and writers who write for niche markets have a real advantage over the giant. Want the really cool electronic titles? Keep an eye on that space.

Cameron concludes by noting what should be obvious to us to live and breathe among these gadgets:

Certainly Douglas Adams was a pioneer of computerised content including game versions of THG2TG, so my guess is that he would have been pushing forward the boundaries of book technology – a fact that should play to his publishers' strengths. By and large publishers are creative people. Creativity is what they do well and enjoy. And with creative publishers technology can be used in ways that expand traditionally printed books. The app version of Stephen Fry's Chronicles, My Fry, was a great example of this. Recognising that it was a book for dipping in and out of, Penguin Books created an electronic version that emphasised the index so that readers could move about the book in a non-linear, topic based way.

So, with all that technology has to offer now, why am I reading a science-fiction novel about an electronic book in an electronic format that pretends to be a paperback?

Solid question.


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