Author: John Scalzi
Edition: Kindle (via Amazon UK)
Disclaimer, before I begin: I’m a relative newbie when it comes to reading science fiction, and until I read Old Man’s War I’d been putting off picking up a book in this genre, since I wanted to find something really worth the time. After all, there’s nothing I dislike more than choosing a book (of any genre) thinking it sounds like a fun/interesting/worthwhile read, and being disappointed. I may not rant and rave about how I got scammed or let down or how I want my money back, but … well, being disappointed sucks in general.
I need not have worried. At all.
SNARK. IN. SPAAAAAACE!
Interstellar space travel has finally become a reality. Colonisation, however, is a brutal and bloody battle that’s spanned decades and doesn’t show signs of ending. As it turns out, we’re really not alone out there. The Colonial Defense Force is on the frontline of the struggle to colonise, which to its soldiers all boils down to “kill or be killed”. John Perry decides to take their deal…
…And this is where the twist comes in. The CDF don’t recruit from among Earth’s young people, or even from any readily trained military force. They take people in retirement, people nearing the end of their lives, and offer them a better deal – one made available to them through the significant medical and bio-engineering advances that humanity has made. The catch is that no one back on Earth knows the first thing about any of this – the CDF keep a firm lid on anything and everything relating to their activities. To find out anything about the deal you’re taking, you have to take the deal.
John Perry does so, and he takes the deal far better than might probably be expected. He’s 75 when he signs up (it’s his birthday, no less), and his wife has been dead for eight years (a fact that does indeed prove relevant as the story progresses, but that’s spoiler territory). In fact, the story opens with Perry standing at his wife’s grave, a scene in which we’re given the obligatory background information and a lead-in to What John Did Next. And it’s one of the most charming openers to a story that I’ve read in a long time. Perry’s is an engaging voice, narrating his own tale with exactly the right amount of dry wit to make his personality stand out at once, without ever losing the sense of depth and warmth that make him a sympathetic character. (I caught myself, early on in the story, ‘hearing’ Perry’s voice as that of Stargate’s Jack O’Neill. It stuck fast. Movie casting, anyone?)
What he does next is, of course, sign on to serve with the CDF. Perry isn’t without his ties to life in his hometown, but it’s clear that he’s committed to leaving it behind. There’s a strong sense that, without his wife to share it with, his life isn’t amounting to very much in a personal sense. It’s a sweet little nod to the happy life they had, without a single melancholy background violin in sight. After all, Perry’s story is only just beginning…
A STAND UP FIGHT
In space, there’s no time for screaming. The war for colonisation rights on habitable planets means that there’s barely even sufficient time to train recruits. Perry and the small group of friends he makes on the journey off of Earth – the self-declared ‘Old Farts’ – are rushed through their preparation and training, but Scalzi’s readers are not. We’re given plenty of information about the process that ‘makes’ a CDF soldier, but we’re never weighed down by it – and it’s entirely intriguing stuff. Rather than raising my eyebrows, it snared my imagination. And my imagination does so like to be snared. It’s such a minx.
Anyway. John Perry 2.0 is made for one purpose, and it’s a purpose that he commits himself to. There are questions, as the story goes on, about why the CDF do what they do, the way that they do it – but what truly impressed me about this story is that Perry asks those questions and he has them answered. This is no straight-from-the-template soldier’s struggle with conspiracy. We get an insight into Perry’s superiors along the way, and their positions and thoughts on the war they’re all fighting give depth to what is essentially one man’s story, all without taking the focus away from that fact.
The action that John Perry sees in the field is well-crafted, awe-inspiring stuff, and the glimpses across enemy lines into the cultures of their alien opposition are well-placed and truly fascinating, but we’re never distracted from the fact that this is Perry’s journey. He wasn’t a soldier when he first signed up, but unlike most new army recruits, Perry’s far from a young man with a head full of preconceived, romantic notions. He’s a fully grown man. When he’s given information, he listens. When he’s given orders, he follows them – and when he makes a point or a suggestion to his superiors, they listen to him. After all, they’re not listening to a hotheaded youth who’s out for glory, or in the war to get his jollies. It’s a twist on what could easily have been just another war story that I’m happy to give the author points for.
Scalzi wins all the points, in fact. This novel is several different kinds of story, all stripped of stereotypes and coloured with interesting characters and intricate worldbuilding (which I love). It’s a touching story about love, without the sugary-sweet over-sentimentality. It’s a moral fable without the cardboard-cutout villains or, indeed, the dashing heroes. Perry doesn’t want fame or glory. By the end, he’s truly a soldier – what he does is fight the war. And what a war it is. This story is also, in my delighted-geek opinion, an action movie waiting to happen that could put so many action movies over its knee and deliver a true master-student spanking. (I’m serious. Richard Dean Anderson for John Perry. James Cameron for director. Or maybe Clint Eastwood. SOMEONE MAKE THIS HAPPEN.)
In short, Old Man’s War is one of the neatest, most well-crafted and thought-provoking stories I’ve read this year, and a definite favourite. Thoroughly recommended.