There are bad writers, there are mediocre writers, there are good authors, there are gifted authors, and then there is John Scalzi. Scalzi is best known for his work on his blog Whatever, a 2008 winner of the Hugo for best fan writer. But he is also the author of a series of novels. The first is Old Man’s War, a military SF novel which garnered Scalzi a Campbell Award for best new writer.
So obviously, anyone who follows the SF community knows about Scalzi’s work. But for those of you who don’t, let me tell you a little bit about Old Man’s War.
The story is about a 75 year old man named John Perry who joins the Colonial Defense Force. In this tale, Earth lives in a sort of naïveté about the rest of the universe, living much as we always have done. This is made possible by the defense of Earth and all humanity by the Colonials. But the Colonial Administration keeps itself veiled in mystery, and only accepts recruits 75 years old or older. So when Perry joins the CDF, he has no idea what to expect, and wonders how a 75 year old man will fulfill a young man’s job. The resulting events are interesting, as Perry’s eyes are opened to a whole universe he never knew existed. Along the way, he makes friends, learns to fight, loses friends, and becomes and elite soldier.
The story is told entirely through the eyes of John Perry. Essentially, the book breaks down into a series of vignettes that relate different events in the military career of Perry. We see him finding his youthful rejuvenation, his training, various battles, and the events that lead to his rising high in the CDF. Along the way, Scalzi writes on the themes of human nature, the role of the military, genocide vs. survival, and social Darwinism. This is not the average military SF novel. It neither demonizes war, nor celebrates it. It looks more at the soldiers, at the way many or them fight for each other, and how they can manage fight for you even when it changes them completely.
Perry is a fun character, reflective of Scalzi’s own impish nature. He cracks jokes and has a generally optimistic nature. He makes friends easily, and is intelligent and crafty enough both to survive and even thrive within the Colonial Defense Forces. In short, he is the type of person that everyone enjoys being around, and a s you read, you’ll get a sense of him as that favorite grandfather who always brought presents, laughed loudly, and praised you for your most insignificant efforts. You’ll like him.
And you’ll like the Old Man’s War universe as well. Humanity is not the best thing since sliced bread, is in fact several millennia behind others technologically. What Scalzi seems to have done is transplant the way our world is now (with its Third, Second, and First Worlds) into space. What you will find is that though humanity is doing okay, it is far from First World. And as a result, it must do all it can to protect each and every one of its colonies. It all comes down to a competition between different sentient species for land and resources, much as it does today on Earth.
There is little to dislike about Scalzi’s writing. Maybe the use or swearing might offend some, as well as the liberal sexual morality. But even that ends up being inoffensive, as Scalzi has a way of putting the reader at ease, making him relax into the story. It is a true gift, all the more impressive because Scalzi writes his books almost in one fell swoop, not having to edit and re-edit his tales. Old Man’s War is written in such an easygoing narrative fashion, that it has the feel of an old campfire tale. It is adventure filled storytelling with the feel of a Heinlein novel and the fun of a Tom Swift.
Scalzi is poised to become one of the most prolific and best writers in speculative fiction, and glad am I for it. I highly recommend Old Man’s War.