Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (TOR, 2005)

(Science Fiction, Military Science Fiction)

oldmanswarmycover Grade: Γ — (Gamma) A good or even fantastic book within the genre, possibly worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that is likely to be unappealing to individuals who are not fans of a given genre. This is the highest grade that many very good books that are part of a series can receive, since series require an investment in reading that normally only appeals to fans of that genre. 

In brief:

Old Man’s War was John Scalzi‘s real breakthrough novel.  It is exciting war story of a man who joins the Colonial military to defend humanity, but unlike most tales, the hero, and almost everyone else in the service, is seventy-five years old.  This twist, and how one makes a seventy-five year to be fighting fit, is the crux of the tale and what really makes this story stand out from most other Mil Fic.  Smoothly written in a style that is easy to read, the story is quite compelling, despite frequently being predictable, and is a highly enjoyable read.


Mid-to-Far Future, with life on Earth appearing fairly recognizable, but with technology in 220px-John_Scalzithe extra-solar system colonies being extremely advanced, bordering on ultra-tech.  Faster-than-light travel (FTL) and advanced biology is normal in the Colonies. Earth is run by normal governments, but the Colonies are run by a private organization that seems to be akin to the British East India Company.

In Depth:

First off, a quick apology for the somewhat rough nature of this review.  I am quite sick and haven’t had the time to revise it.  Now…

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi is a military science fiction tale that is frequently compared to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s The Forever War.  While I would not go that far, I did thoroughly enjoy Old Man’s War.  It is a fun, engaging and frequently rip-roaring Future Soldier‘s Story with enough hints of more going on than it seems to keep my intellect engaged.

Even so, it is quite difficult to review without spoilers.  The reason?  Throughout the tale there are little secrets that set the scene, and while none of them are really unexpected, discussing them does serve as a bit of a spoiler. Yet, despite this, the more subtle hints in the tale can be discussed, and so I will focus primarily on them.  After, of course, I give a bit of the setup.

oldman'swar2In general, Old Man’s War follows the story of John Perry, a fairly unextraordinary man,[1] who in order to gain another lease on life, signs up for the Colonial military service, along with a large number of other men and women of similar geriatric condition.  Now, I should note at this point that there is no anagathic treatment on this future Earth, people in their seventies are old. Exactly how the Colonial administration (or whatever it’s called) expects septuagenarian to serve as soldiers is the crux of the first third of the book, and while the reveal is hardly surprising, it is fun all the same.

What I can say without spoiling is that the technology owned by the Colonies is far advanced to that of Earth.  The reason? They learn, trade, borrow and steal it from the other species out in space, and there are a lot of other species… many of which are hell bent on killing us.  Why?  Competition for habitable planets; the galaxy, it seems, is filled with intelligent space faring species, each of which is desperate to expand or be destroyed.  As a result, humanities interstellar allies are those who cannot live in a similar habitat to us, while anyone who can is more or less by definition an enemy.

OldMansWar(1stEd)Thus, while the first third of the book serves as setup, the second third follows the more standard Mil Fic formula of training followed by lots and lots of action and combat, and the third bit brings the tale back to a more personal adventure that adds depth to the central character, while still keeping us in an action adventure environment. To that end, it is the first and third parts of the book that really make Old Man’s War stand out and create trans-genre appeal, for it is there that we really get a strong sense of personal growth and character arch.

Having said that, there are bits in the middle that I feel are often overlooked that also add some depth to the tale.  These are not spelled out, but are left scattered like seeds in the soil for the reader to ponder.  Whether they are addressed in later tales (for despite the fact that this book stands on its own, it is part of a series), or just left for the reader to contemplate is uncertain, but they are there all the same.

One thing to remember about the book is that it is told from a first person narrative, and to that end, if the central character believes something, we tend to take it at face value.  John, the narrator and central character, begins the story with some doubts about his service and the Colonial administration, but fairly quickly into the tale he drinks the Kool-aid, as it were, and buys what they are selling.  There are, however, several elements hinted at throughout the text that seem to contradict the official version of what’s going on, and one does wonder if as the series progresses, the lies come out.

On the negative side, one problem of this novel is that the soldier’s life experience never really comes to play in the book.  After all, a seventy-five year old really has a great deal of knowledge to pull from, but while someone’s background, say as a politician, comes up now and again, it never has a positive experience.  To that end, I felt the book could have done with having the soldier’s call a bit more upon their past.

Yet, regardless of this, the book still fulfills its promise, for it is a smooth and easy read that is filled with rip-roaring adventure and enough questions to engage the brain without being to taxing.  To that end, I would say that this is a must read for anyone who likes Military Science Fiction, and well worth giving a try unless you dislike Science Fiction in general.

[1] Indeed, so unextraordinary that I had to look up his name to remember it.  Of course, the book is told in first person, so one is not generally reminded of his name every time he speaks, like one finds with 3rd person narratives. What is more, the author very clearly intended to make whats-his-name unextraordinary.  In fact for the bulk of the book, that is his only defining characteristic.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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6 Responses to Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (TOR, 2005)

  1. William says:

    Great review, as always. Recently got hold of some old Clifford Simak novels. Have you ever read/reviewed his work?

    • Thomas Evans says:

      I haven’t, do you recommend them?

      • William says:

        Indeed I do! Discovered his work at a used book store a few months ago. The books I’ve read are A Heritage of Stars and A Choice of Gods. Both deal with far future humanity after the collapse of civilization. Rather than the normal post-apocalyptic fare (motorcycles, desert, lost technology), he deals with average people returning to the Earth. Farmers living side by side with robots. Heritage of Stars is about a young man’s journey to find the Place of Going to the Stars. He’s joined by a young woman, a robot, and an odd mix of aliens (one of whom is little more than a band of shimmering light). Choice of Gods involves humans with ESP, android monks, and a massive alien intelligence at the center of the galaxy.

  2. I would add two points. One, it had a really fantastic opening line that gave it a really good hook. Two, you came to the conclusion fairly early on that humanity is a really, really tasty species, going by the number of alien lifeforms that want to eat us.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      You are completely correct on both points. No wonder those flying saucers came back in the ’60’ s with the book, “To Serve Man.”

      I know… I know… don’t mix your metaphores.

  3. Pingback: The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 3: The Myth of the Gung Ho Space Marine… | The Archaeologist's Guide to the Galaxy.. by Thomas Evans

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