Old Man’s War

by John Scalzi, 2005

Review is copyright 2017 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2017.01.22

Copyright 2017 by Wil C. Fry.
Some rights reserved.
Full Title: Old Man’s War
Author: John Scalzi
Year: 2005
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
ISBN 978-0-765-31524-3
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Wikipedia Page


John Scalzi’s debut novel, 2005’s Old Man’s War was well-received by the reading public, nominated in 2006 for a Hugo Award, was ranked number one on a survey of Best SFF Novels Of The Decade (2000-2010), and was ranked best SF novel of the 21st Century on another survey.

The story, told in the first-person, traces the life of John Perry from old age on Earth through his new life as an enhanced soldier in the Colonial Defense Forces, where he and other CDF troops battle ETs of widely varying descriptions. The universe is apparently crowded with sentient life, all of which is warlike and most of which is at similar levels of development.

Freely compared to Robert A. Heinlein novels, Old Man’s War definitely had echoes of Heinlein — it was more like Heinlein than it was like Asimov or Clarke, certainly — but Scalzi seemed to have his own voice.

None of the technology in the book was new, or original to Scalzi, though perhaps the combination or description of them was different. Fictional technologies in use include the Spip Drive, BrainPal, MP-35 (infantry weapon), Beanstalk (space elevator), genetically modified human bodies that include photosynthesis, programmable nanotechnology, and the ability to tranfer a person’s consciousness from one body to another.

What I Liked Least About It

I’m not sure I agree with the folks who declared this novel the best of the last decade, or the best of the century, though I admit to having read very little of the competition. There were a few things that bothered me as I read.

The most noticeable distraction throughout the book was Scalzi’s tendency to structure the story around a series of flashbacks and flashforwards. Each chapter chronologically followed the last, but the beginning of each felt disconnected — he’d flashed forward a bit. After a few paragraphs, he flashes back to fill in the missing time until he catches up with the beginning of the chapter. This chronological zig-zagging was a bit interesting the first few times, but quickly became tiresome and predictable.

I also thought the main characters’ personalities didn’t match their given ages. In this universe, the soldiers of the CDF are Earthlings who’ve grown old, retired, and are 80 years old or so. Then each one’s consciousness is transferred to a newly grown body. I would expect a little giddiness at that point — I tried to imagine my grandmother’s mind and memories being copied into a 20-year-old’s body — but the conversations and actions that followed felt very early middle-age to me. Perhaps this is simple ageism on my part, but I suspect that the author (who was 36 when the book was published) simply had a difficult time getting into the head of a senior citizen.

Additionally, having given quite a bit of thought to the idea of extra-terrestrials — and why we haven’t met them yet — I wasn’t sold on the idea that hundreds of competing civilizations arose pretty much simultaneously in the same sector of the galaxy, all seeking the same planets for colonization. Yes, I know that “suspension of disbelief” is sometimes required for science fiction — perhaps more than in most other genres — but I prefer the kinds of science fiction that at least offer explanations for startling developments. It is much more reasonable to suppose that other sentient civilizations rose and fell before humanity evolved, or will not rise until after our civilization has fallen.

One other tidbit that bothered me was how all the civilizations were so willing to war with one another. Not one, apparently, was willing to ally with another to divvy up planets or join forces against some common enemy. While war is probably likely at some point, if we ever meet a bunch of ET civilizations and all want the same planets, it just seemed like at least a few of them could find a way to help themselves against others by (at least temporarily) joining forces with some of the others.

What I Liked Most About It

The best part of this book for me is the relatively unique tale that Scalzi told — despite many of the elements of the story not being terribly unique. Perhaps this is why the book was well-received. The idea of genetically-enhanced supersoldiers isn’t new, but it was handled in a new way here — using senior citizens’ minds to populate them. The idea of faster-than-light (FTL) travel isn’t new at all, but Scalzi’s “Skip Drive” had a different explanation than any other I’ve heard — it shoves a vessel from one universe to another, nearly identical universe, just in a different spot — without breaking the laws of spacetime, which prevent FTL travel. And so on.

“Universe-building” is often a difficult part of writing science fiction. Even if you can conceive of the universe, it can be frustrating to explain it to readers without boring them to tears or wasting endless pages explaining the societies, governments, discoveries, etc. But Scalzi handled this part easily and smoothly. One of his tricks was using first-person narrative, seeing the universe through the eyes of a character who actually doesn’t know much about the universe besides Earth. By using the construct that Earthlings are still trapped on Earth and don’t really have access to off-world information, Scalzi avoids having to explain anything about what goes on out there — until the main character finally gets there and learns it for himself.

Because I’d been told in advance that Scalzi was being compared to Heinlein, I was looking out for the differences. One significant difference, in a good way, was how Scalzi treated his female characters. Despite Heinlein seeming ahead of his time in the 1950s and ‘60s when dealing with race relations and sexism in his stories, he still had a tendency to describe women through the eyes of a juvenile male. Scalzi’s treatment of them seemed much more mature. Perhaps this is a result of the times a-changin’. Regardless of the reason, I liked it.


Science fiction certainly isn’t for everyone; I’m still surprised when I meet people who can’t imagine a hypothetical reality, or don’t want to. But if you enjoy a good story with quick pacing and a few startling ideas, you might like this one.

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