Tor, 2005, 316 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30940-8
It doesn’t take a long time to become a John Scalzi fan. One look at his on-line blog, “Whatever”, is usually enough to put him on your list of daily diversions. A true writing professional, Scalzi has perfected his on-line voice for maximum impact: It’s clear, strong and immensely entertaining. It’s not much of a surprise, then, to find out that his “first” novel be such a readable piece of work. (“First” novel in a big-publisher sense; a truer first novel, Agent to the Stars, is available on-line and will soon be published by speciality publisher Subterranean Press)
Old Man’s War is self-consciously a derivation on the kind of military SF best exemplified by Heinlein’s Starship Troopers: a novel whose first half is spent seeing our protagonist through training, and the second in actual combat. The main tweak of this well-worn story, in this case, is that the protagonist of the tale is a 75-year old man. John Perry is widowed, bored and enlisted: what sweetens the pot for him is that the Colonial Marines are ready to rejuvenate anyone willing to sign up for a tour of duty.
I expected to enjoy Old Man’s War, but I’m still surprised at how quickly and how effectively Scalzi can hook his readers. The prose style is a model of easy reading, and Scalzi’s got a practised eye for the small details, the mini-scenes, the rich dialogue, the background material required to make readers race from one chapter to the next. His protagonist undergoes his “going of age” adventure with believable reactions given his life experiences. John Perry is a tough guy, but not without his soft side: he misses the simple pleasures of matrimony, is properly grateful for what his old body has done for him and can’t let go whenever he think he has seen something important. This is a bookmark-optional book: Don’t be surprised if you end up reading it in a single sitting.
The military-SF aspect of the story is also handled with plenty of skill. The problem with a lot of industry-standard military SF is that it often seems as if it’s written by soldiers for soldiers. Even well-meaning civilians can have trouble understanding the tactics, the jargon and the common assumptions. Scalzi is not a veteran, even comes from the left side of the political spectrum, but he understand how to treat the subject respectfully. This detachment has a lot to do with the perfect accessibility of his novel for everyone: Even readers unfamiliar with hard-core MilSF will be able to read Old Man’s War without too much trouble. (Naturally, sub-genre devotees will find themselves at home. Through I wonder if the Thaddeus Bender sequence is a bit of red meat thrown to that particular segment of the audience.)
This being said, the plotting isn’t up to the polish of the prose. Scalzi has an annoying penchant for plotting-by-coincidence, and so Perry benefits from a few unbelievably convenient chance encounters: First with his biggest off-planet fan (netting him some initial advancement), then (twice) with someone familiar to him. Once may not have been so bad, but more than that is a bit too much.
I also have issues with some of the background coherency of his universe: Some arbitrary restrictions are made necessary by the plot, (no higher-tech on Earth; permanent exile of the Marines) but the rigid enforcement of those rules are inconsistent with how things work in the real world. Scalzi also struggles with his high-tech toys: the level of technology used by the Colonial Marine isn’t evenly distributed, and even his acknowledgement of those inconsistencies (eg; the discussion of why the “Ghost Brigades” don’t make up the bulk of the Marines Corps) seems a bit evasive. Which is a shame, because Scalzi understands the tech and slings the jargon better than many of his peers: His use of SF tropes is consistent with his goal of updating Starship Troopers to today’s tech standards.
But even with the awful coincidences, even with the iffy parameters of his universe, Old Man’s War remains a delight from beginning to end. I’m not just saying that because it’s a near-certainty that John Scalzi will eventually read this review (sorry for those last two paragraphs, Mr. Scalzi), but because I have rarely seen such a compulsively-readable novel. In terms of pure reading fun, it brings to mind some of the slickest Frederik Pohl novels, or -dare I say it- Heinlein’s Starship Troopers itself. A number of so-called fine writers could take note of the technique. Scalzi is a professional, and when it comes to my entertainment dollars, I’ll bet on the professional over the artist all the time.