Morality In Crushing 6 Inch Aliens – John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War

I recently read the novel Redshirts.

loved it.  A lot.  A whole lot.

So I thought… why not try some more Scalzi.  And I was right in that choice.  Old Man’s War is a great novel.  As Scalzi’s first novel, I’m rather surprised just how well written and complete  it is.

Old Man’s War
John Scalzi
320 Pages
Tor Books
December 9, 2004

For one thing, Scalzi is quite skilled at separating (and eventually combining) the humorous and serious parts of his novel.  It begins on Earth, from the perspective of a man named John Perry and the early chapters are a bit depressing.

Perry is a 75-year-old widower who has joined an interstellar army known as the Colonial Defense Force (CDF) to fight for human beings who are attempting to colonize the universe.  Much of the first few chapters is Perry mourning his wife and considering just what it means that he’s left his entire Earthly life behind to fight wars among the stars.

At this point, you’re probably saying, “James, no one in their right mind would want a man aged 75 to fight in a war, interstellar, or otherwise?”  And, excepting Charles Atlas, you’d be correct.

Fortunately, the CDF has stolen tons of alien tech over the years, and has the ability to transfer a person’s consciousness into a completely new, greatly enhanced body.  These bodies do not age, are completely hairless, and are able to survive on only two hours of sleep. Handy, no?

Perry’s introduction to this universe is also ours. We learn about skip drives (hyperdrive for a new age), Brainpals (an internal computer with an HUD that appears in the user’s vision), and all sorts of other technology.  Perry names his Brainpal “Asshole” and the humor continues.

In fact, the first 100 pages are almost all humor, as Scalzi introduces us to the universe he has created.  Even the basic training Perry gets tossed into is mostly light-hearted and fun.  The novel tells us of Perry’s acclimation to his new body and he discovery that he excels as a soldier.  Humor reigns for much of this arc of the story.

But… then the war came.

Naturally, war is a complex subject.  And Scalzi is smart enough as an author to treat is as such.  There’s battles that are inevitable, certainly, and these are very well written and interesting

But then there’s the ones that border on cruel and horrible (did I mention the merge of funny and serious?  Try to read the chapter about the Covandu battle without laughing… and then feeling terrible about laughing).  Scalzi has written a great universe with a large number of interesting (and often frightening!) aliens… all of which want humanity to bugger off back to earth, and are more than willing to fight over it.

Perry goes through a lot of strange cycles as he attempts to deal with the fact that he’s a ruthless killing machine and it never comes off as disingenuous, or preachy on the part of Scalzi.  Instead, it feels like natural character progression, which really speaks to Scalzi’s ability to write good characters.

While reading the novel, I almost felt like I was reading a novel of Starship Troopers (and yes, I know there already was a novel…  The movie is different, I hear).  It should be unsurprising, then, that the novel is written very much in the style of Robert Heinlein, or that Scalzi even acknowledges Heinlein’s influence at the back of the book.

After reading Redshirts I knew I wanted to read another Scalzi novel.  I wasn’t sure where to go with, but I’m glad I ended up with Old Man’s War.  It is a part of a series… and I’m generally down on series novels because I hate trying to keep up.  I would much rather have a nice beginning, middle, and end, and be done with it.  But Scalzi’s got me hooked now, the bastard, so I can’t wait to check out the rest of the books in the series.

I would definitely recommend this book to people… even people who don’t normally read sci-fi (or those like myself who abhor military science fiction).  Scalzi’s humor really is the star of the novel and the witty banter carried me through many scientific explanations that I would otherwise be too stupid to understand.

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