Wednesday, 6 August 2008

‘Old Man’s War’ – John Scalzi (Tor Books)


When will I ever learn….? :o) Here’s another book that I initially heard nothing but good things about but never picked up. Why? Well, knowing me I was probably on a big epic fantasy kick at the time but I also get far too suspicious about books where I hear nothing but good stuff. Instead of judging a book on its own merits I’m more likely to put it to one side and try something else instead. That’s a pretty big mistake to make, especially when it means that a book like ‘Old Man’s War’ has been left to one side for such a long time. I won’t make that mistake again, promise…

‘Old Man’s War’ tells the tale of widower John Perry, seventy five years old and set to embark on a career in the Colonial Defence Force. John is about to find that it’s a big universe out there and it’s full of alien races not only competing with humans, for prime real estate to colonise, but also more than willing to view humanity as a rather sweet tasting delicacy on the menu. Things don’t look as bleak for John as they first appear; the CDF recruit the elderly for the wealth of life experience that they hold, once they get into space they’re given a brand new (younger) body far superior to what they had before. They’re also given state of the art weaponry to provide that cutting edge…
Now all John needs to do is get through the next ten years before he can retire for the second time…

‘Old Man’s War’ wasn’t a perfect read but it was one of those reads that I just had to finish it as I was enjoying it so much. If I was stood next to an annoying commuter (on the tube) it didn’t matter, I didn’t even notice as I was far too busy reading. To be fair, there was one commuter who must have eaten something foul, the night before, but his problem was one that no-one on the train could get away from! If my boss was looking the other way then it was the ideal excuse to whip the book out and read a couple more pages before he realised what I was doing… Yes, I enjoyed ‘Old Man’s War’ that much and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series as soon as possible.

‘Old Man’s War’ is told through the eyes of John Perry and we get to see this perspective widen from small town living (in Ohio) to interstellar conflict across a number of planets. Far from being at the centre of an Empire, Earth is actually in a relative backwater (tucked away from what’s happening elsewhere) and this trick with the perspective serves to emphasis this. For me this was a new slant on Earth’s relevance to galaxy wide affairs and was a possible answer to why alien forces are never shown to have any interest in Earth itself. I liked this approach as I felt that I was reading something a little fresher with evidence of more thought having gone into it’s creation, would humanity actually base all it’s operations from Earth if all the good (and strategically important) stuff was elsewhere?

The first person perspective also gives the reader a great opportunity to get into John Perry’s head and share the journey with him. And what a journey it is. Before we even get into combat situations we share John’s feelings at leaving his life, on Earth, behind. We also get to share his sense of wonder at the new world he will become a part of and I think this approach is the best way to show readers your world for the first time. If you want to convey ‘awe inspiring’ then show the reader a scene through the eyes of someone who has never seen this stuff before and is inspired. It worked for me :o)
We also get to see John take his place in the universe, becoming a seasoned and valued member of CDF forces. This is another interesting journey but one that did seem a little, I don’t know, ‘easy’ on John. This is a man with no military experience who very quickly displays the ability to adapt/improve military tactics which moves him up the ranks. His drill sergeant (one of my favourite characters, I really enjoyed his opening speech to the new recruits) spends time telling the recruits that they have no idea about what awaits them. John adapts more quickly than I expected he would, that’s all I’m saying… I guess there’s a fine line between maintaining interest by moving your hero into new situations and doing it in a way that works within the military structure you’ve created. It didn’t quite work for me but I was having too much fun with the rest of the story for that to be too much of an issue.
We only get to see other characters through John’s eyes so can’t really learn much about them other than what John sees. Luckily for us though, John seems to be a very perceptive man so this balances things out, we don’t get an in-depth look into other characters but we get the next best thing.

The story itself starts out slow (basic training and all that, it has to be done) but there was still plenty going on that kept me ticking over until John went to war and the action stepped up a gear. One of Scalzi’s finest points in the novel is the universe that he has created, a setting full of rich and varied life all of which is intent on plundering mankind’s colonies and eating the colonists. This makes for a number of fast paced and action packed battles and introductory pieces that show the reader just how full of life Scalzi’s universe is (as well as just how alone we are…) The Rraey and the Consu are more than worthy adversaries but it’s the little touches that I liked the most such as the Covandu, similar to humans in every way apart from an extreme lack of height…

War is hell but it also makes for an enjoyable read in ‘Old Man’s War’, a superior read to Buettner’s ‘Orphanage’ (reviewed yesterday) and one that any fan of military sci-fi should read if they haven’t already. I may have to dig out Haldeman’s ‘The Forever War’ to see how ‘Old Man’s War’ matches up to it…

Nine out of Ten

5 comments:

Mark Chitty said...

Glad to hear you liked this one Greame :) The follow up, Ghost Brigades, is hitting all the right spots for me at the moment, can't wait to hear your thoughts on it when you get around to it!

Neth said...

Scalzi is consistent - if you enjoyed Old Man's War then you can bet you'll enjoy Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony as well.

S.M.D. said...

Old Man's War was quite good.

I find that I have problems reading books that get endlessly recommended to me. The more someone tries to cram it down my throat, the more apprehensive I become about reading it. So, don't feel too bad :p.

Aidan Moher said...

Right on. I loved Old Man's War and loved The Ghost Brigades almost as much!

Just picked up The Last Colony, which I'll jump into as soon as I finish my current read.

If you enjoyed Old Man's War, you should give Joe Haldeman's The Forever War a try.

~Aidan
A Dribble of Ink

Graeme Flory said...

Looks like I've got some good reading ahead of me :o) (Always good to hear!)

Aidan - I've read 'The Forever War' but it was years ago, I might just dig it out and give it another go.