I’m a sucker for lists. I first become of aware of John Scalzi’s 2005 novel Old Man’s War after seeing it on some best-of SFF list sandwiched square between Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, two novels that I adore. Through more searching, I found that Scalzi is a prolific science fiction writer and blogger who has made a substantial impact on the science fiction community. Given the buzz, I was excited to dive into this novel.
Old Man’s War is unapologetically old school. If Robert Heinlein had been writing in the twenty-first century, he may well have produced something like this novel. The world of Old Man’s War is a (near?) future in which Earth is a minor player on a great galactic stage. On the fringes of the galaxy, humans fight for dominance against alien races. The Colonial Defense Forces, a militaristic group of humans who operate outside the boundaries of terrestrial laws, are the main fighting force behind this goal. The CDF has an interesting recruitment method—instead of bringing on young soldiers at the peak of physical fitness, they instead recruit only people who have reached the age of seventy-five. After two years of service, recruits are promised a home on one of the conquered worlds.
These recruits leave Earth to join the CDF after acknowledging that they can in no way return to the life they had led. John Perry, our protagonist, is one of these recruits. He leaves Earth, his family, and his memories behind for good. He soon finds out the reason the CDF can get away with recruiting people who are so old—their consciousnesses are transferred into physically perfect synthetic bodies that are capable of interfacing with computer systems and weaponry. Perry and the others recruits find themselves, at least physically, returned to a hyper-idealized version of youth.
This premise is immediately interesting, but I kept waiting for Old Man’s War to become more than just that neat premise. The concept of someone used to the deteriorating body of an old man being put into this perfect synthetic body is absolutely ripe for psychological and emotional conflict, but Scalzi never lets us in. Modern science fiction gives us complex character interiorities, and while Heinlein and his contemporaries may not have been as focused on such complexity, I think it was a missed opportunity for Scalzi to show us old concepts in a modern way. As it is, Perry never makes that leap into emotional verisimilitude. I never felt like I knew who he was. He is a character who is not conflicted at all about this new life, neither about his new status as a meta-human, nor about the alien races that he helps to slaughter.
Old Man’s War is a novel that banks on its premise rather than on its characters, which is almost always a mistake. Great fiction comes from taking people the audience will care about, putting them into situations that force them to make hard decisions that illuminate their character, and to see them through to some sort of conclusion for forces them to change. Perry never really has to make any difficult choices. He just sort of goes along with everything because the very premise—that he serve two years of unquestioned service—requires that he must. Because of that, I found myself simply not caring about anything that happened. Nothing was at stake—not his humanity, not his mind, not his sense of self. All of these complexities are swept awkwardly under the rug.
It’s true that I probably came to Old Man’s War with unreasonable expectations. And perhaps my lack of literacy about old school science fiction prevented me from understanding the genre conventions that Scalzi was trying to investigate here. But by the end of the novel, I didn’t care about anything that was going on, which is the worst feeling to have about a novel.
Old Man’s War gets two pieces of lasagna out of five.