Book Recommendation - Old Man's War


Posted on : 12/10/2012 07:00:00 AM | By : Dann | In : , ,

Courtesy of the Blogfather, I have been reading about John Scalzi for several years.  I just didn't have a chance to read any of his work due to the already sizable pile of my reading list.

As fortune would have it, I have been reading Mr. Scalzi's blog for longer than I have been reading his fiction.  He is overly enamored with sarcasm like so many others.  Regrettably.  His writing there is otherwise most enjoyable.

His first science fiction book is called "Old Man's War".  Many have favorably comparied Mr. Scalzi's style to that of the late Robert A. Heinlein.  The closest of Mr. Heinlein's books that is comparable with "Old Man's War" is "Starship Troopers".  As I have observed before, the movie is nothing like the book.

I was reading a review of "Old Man's War" that described the plot as a cheat when compared with the plot of "Starship Troopers".  I find the two plots to be reasonably similar.

In "Starship Troopers", the protagonist joins the military.  During basic, he he learns how to wear an operating powered armor.  The reason for the armor is to make the soldier stronger, faster, better than the alien hordes that humanity is fighting.

Mr. Scalzi takes a little different approach, but the result is the same.  Part of that approach is a personal computer that is integrated with the user.  It operates something like Apple's Siri.  Except most folks call it "Asshole".

I will leave that aspect of the book there so as to not ruin the book for you.

I was most impressed with Mr. Scalzi's ability to create very human characters.  Our protagonist is John Perry; a 75 year old retiree that has decided to enter the Colonial Defense Forces.  Earth is well protected from conflict with the aliens.  Earth colonies....not so much.  So people living on Earth, like John Perry, are recruited to leave the Earth and join the CDF.

One of the reasons why John Perry is willing to leave the planet is that he really has little left to live for on Earth.  His wife had died of a stroke a couple years prior.

He didn't want to live out his days as a man who lives for nothing more than his next visit to his wife's grave.  It is a portrait of a man who hurts so deeply.  I hope I never hurt like that.

I hate visiting here.  I hate that my wife of forty-two years is dead, that one minute one Saturday morning she was in the kitchen, mixing a bowl of waffle batter and talking to me about the dustup at the library board meeting the night before, and the next minute she was on the floor, twitching as the stroke tore through here brain.  I hate that her last words were "Where the hell did I put the vanilla."

I hate that I've become on of those old men who visits a cemetery to be with his dead wife.  When I was (much) younger I used to ask Kathy what the point would be.  A pile of rotting mean and bones that used to be a person isn't a person anymore; it's just a pile of rotting mean and bones.  The person is gone -- off to heaven or hell or where ever or nowhere.  You might as well visit a side of beef.  When you get older you realize this is still the case.  You just don't care.  It's what you have.

For as much as I hate the cemetery,  I've been grateful it's here, too.  I miss my wife.  It's easier to miss here at a cemetery, where she's never been anything but dead,  that to miss her in all the places where she was alive.

I didn't stay long; I never do.  Just long enough to feel the stab that's still fresh enough after most of eight years, the one that also serves to remind me that I've got other things to do than to stand around in a cemetery like an old, damned fool.  Once I felt it, I turned around and left and didn't bother looking around.  This was the last time I would ever visit the cemetery or my wife's grave, but I didn't wan to expend too much effort in trying to remember it.  As I said, this is the place where she's never been anything but dead.  There's not much value in remembering that.

Part of the process of joining the CDF requires tests and evaluations.  One of those evaluations is designed to evoke an emotional response.
A little later in the afternoon, I got pissed off.

I've been reading your file," said the Colonial, a thin young man who looked like a strong wind would sail him off like a kite.

"Okay," I said.

"It says you were married."

"I was."

"Did you like it? Being married."

"Sure.  It bests the alternative."

He smirked.  "So what happened?  Divorce?  Fuck around one time too many?"

Whatever obnoxiously amusing qualities this guy had were fading fast.  "She's dead," I said.

"Yeah?  How did that happen?"

"She had a stroke."

"Gotta love a stroke," he said.  "Bam, your brain's skull pudding, just like that.  Good that she didn't survive.  She'd be this fat, bedridden turnip, you know.  You'd just have to feed her through a straw or something."  He made slurping noises.
After missing his wife so terribly, he ends up having his memory of her terribly abused.  But all is not lost.  He gets to see her again....sort of.  It's complicated.

"Old Man's War" accurately expresses a military experience.  He nails the camaraderie and esprit de corps that is part of any successful military experience.

I particularly appreciated that he spelled "Marines" correctly; capitalized.  It was a back-handed reference to the earth bound USMC, but it was accurate nonetheless.  His use of the Corps' Rifleman's Creed also demonstrated a depth of knowledge on the subject of military relationships and practices.

Another example would be the military treatment of race.  Marine Drill Instructors teach that there is no such thing as white, or black, or brown, or anything other than "green".  The intent is to break down any sense of individuality and to build a common perspective.  Mr. Scalzi's CDF does something similar, but with a twist.

Given the many comparisons with "Starship Troopers", I think it is worthwhile to note the dissimilarities between the two works.

As I suggested in my review of "Revolt in 2100", Mr. Heinlein's characters never used coarse language outright.  But it was readily implied.  The That goes for sexual activity as well.

Mr. Scalzi is a bit more expressive in these two areas.

A deeper difference is the deeper sense of analysis and purpose within the plot.  At a deeper level "Starship Troopers" seeks to express a successful social framework for human progress and expansion.  It explores issues of individual rights and responsibilities.  It explores the unbreakable bond between authority and responsibility.  It also explores how all of those issues affect successful governance.

By contrast, "Old Man's War" is just a ride that takes the reader along.  It presents some very interesting technology.  It certainly presents an intriguing and engaging narrative.  But it only explores what exists.  It does not explore why those conditions exist.  It is the difference between a trip to the African savannah and taking a safari ride in a zoo.  Both can be entertaining and enjoyable experiences.  But only the former is enlightening.

As Mr. Scalzi acknowledges the influence of Mr. Heinlein's work on his own, I think it is fair to observe where he falls a bit short of that comparison.

"Old Man's War" was an enjoyable read.  It was also successful enough that I bought and read "The Ghost Brigades"; Mr. Scalzi's follow up to "Old Man's War".

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