Old Man’s War was one of the last books my father and I talked about before he died. He was a Heinlein buff; I dabbled in science fiction, though my tastes included too many other genres to read as much of it as he did. We we were the car, I remember, though I don’t know where it was we were going, when he asked me if I’d read it, and went on to describe the basic gist of the plot.
I’d largely forgotten about it until just recently, when I read an article at AMC by Scalzi and remembered the conversation.
It’s no surprise that my dad found Old Man’s War enjoyable: the book is, by Scalzi’s own admission, so heavily borrowed from Heinlein as to be more fan fiction than novel. The basic gist is that a galactic army called the Colonial Defense Forces recruits old people (75th birthday) to join the army, because they will be given new bodies or somehow rejuvenated. My first exposure to this idea, which makes all kinds of sense supposing sophisticated-enough technology, was in Frankowski’s A Boy and His Tank, wherein senior citizens joined armored divisions, since the technology kept them healthy and didn’t require young bodies.
One ongoing theme, then, is old age, death, and dying. John Perry, the novel’s protagonist, is a widowed 75-year-old writer before he joins the army; melancholy but witty, he provides a dispassionate lens through which readers can watch the interaction of other rejuvenated septuagenarians, as well as wide-spread death and destruction during battles with the manifold alien races which are inimical to humans’ existence.
While Heinlein’s Starship Troopers glossed over battle itself with a few perfunctory fighting scenes, eschewing more detail in favor of—let’s face it—a treatise on the nature of civic responsibility and warfare, the latter half of Scalzi’s book is filled with battles, but they seem just as perfunctory to me as Heinlein’s. With nothing else to fill that gap but some shallow character development, I felt as though I was reading the edited-for-length version of a much long, much better novel.
On the other hand, I found Scalzi’s universe interesting: a mixed bag of planets, colonies, and alien races with varying degrees of technical expertise, it’s a universe ripe for the writing (and indeed there are sequels to Old Man’s War which continue to play with that universe); I hope that Scalzi’s next books are better fleshed out, since I feel as though he was headed in the right direction but gave up halfway there. Old Man’s War could have been a great science fiction book, but it ended up merely middling.