On My Bookshelf: Old Man’s War

My readers here may be surprised with this dip into military science fiction. John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is neither a walk in the park nor a mindless kowtow to the gods of war. It’s a well-regarded book, especially by fans, nearly pulling off a rare feat in the 2006 Hugo Awards–a first time author winning best novel.

I would give it an entertaining 3 out of four stars. The author maintains a good pace, explores a changing main character, plots well, and draws in some earlier insights and observations to move the story to a satisfying conclusion. No mean ability, given that many experienced sf writers get so far afield in the tales they tell that they can’t find a good way to wrap it all up.

The main premise we’re given is that the space military recruits people at age 75 to fight in the infantry of a humans-versus-the-galaxy campaign. The essence of a person’s mind–personality, memories, knowledge, and such–are downloaded into genetically modified human bodies that are much younger and much tougher to kill. (Though recruits are warned that they have a one-in four or five chance of making it to the end of their ten-year enlistment period. Warned after they enlist, to be accurate.)

The new body and the computer in it help recruits communicate with other soldiers, utilize their weapons, and hopefully, due to their maturity and experience, make better soldiers than late adolescents.

John Perry, protagonist, is a widower. The book follows him as he absorbs his military training, makes friends, loses friends, and experiences the moral insensitivity of violence. Due to a combination of personal intelligence and adaptability, plus sheer dumb luck, he survives all his battles, gets a few medals, gets promoted to the officer corps, and almost gets the woman. His insights and exploits enable humankind to win a very key battle and gain an important insight into galactic society.

Religion? Not any to speak of. But the exploration of placing people in strange bodies for a second go at life is an intriguing one. Not without religious or philosophical implications. I pondered how my faith would be affected by the experiences of the characters in this book?

The book has two problems.

Militaries traditionally recruit from the young, and not only because they are more physically fit. Young adults, especially young males are more pliable and certain tendencies of immaturity can be more easily exploited into a controlled violence within a template of obedience. I find it hard to believe that elderly adults with a lifetime of experiences, would be cowed so easily into being a mindless infantry chewed up (literally) by opposing forces.

To his credit, Mr Scalzi raises the question of the waste of waging war. It is indeed easier to send in a military than to engage in diplomacy and understanding. Spend untold millions of lives–why not? The geezers were all going to die off soon anyway.

The second problem is with waging war across the gulf of interstellar space. Space is not about sailing across a very wide ocean, say the Atlantic. Space is not about landing on some far shore to fight bad guys, say the Nazis. Within the solar system, the separation between the Earth and another planet is immense, a whole order of magnitude higher than conducting any modern war on this planet.

Warring for planets simply makes no sense. With the wealth and technology on display from human spacefaring civilization, people could more easily hollow out a fleet of asteroids and live safely on the inside, away from prying eyes. Recruit old people as workers, if one must.

Mr Scalzi pays obvious tribute to Robert Heinlein. And Heinlein can be forgiven his attempts to put a World War II feel into his fiction back in the 50’s. We simply didn’t know any better then.

Today, we know it makes no sense for human beings to lift themselves out of Earth’s gravity well only to sink themselves into another one even when they find a pretty planet at the bottom of it. But most readers and writers still think of it that way.

Good book. There are three or four sequels out. I don’t think any of them lofted to best novel nominations, so I think I’m going to stop here. John Scalzi has written other novels outside of this universe. I think I’m going there next time.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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