Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Those joining the military cannot imagine what they will face, and are forbidden from contacting anyone back home after joining. They are, after all, dead to their world.


Old Man’s War
 Synopsis


John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce– and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine–and what he will become is far stranger.

Goodreads

My Thoughts

When I lifted Old Man’s War by John Scalzi from the library shelves, the soft cover art had me nostalgic for that of Ender’s Game, one of my first sci-fi reads. The initial line in the synopsis packed punch and the rest promised mystery, so I gave it a go.

What I Liked

PLOT

While I won’t give some of the twists away (because they’re good twists), the premise of Old Man’s War involves the elderly returning to youth in return for the promise to fight in an intergalactic war both never-ending and ever-shifting. The tone leans into the oppressiveness of war, the way its horrors translate across space and species, but can take forms so much worse than anything humans have perpetuated on earth. Those joining the military cannot imagine what they will face, and are forbidden from contacting anyone back home after joining. They are, after all, dead to their world.

CHARACTERS

John Perry comes off as an Everyman, neutral enough for anyone to step into his shoes and see the world – and the universe at large – through his view. He gains friends and grows attached to some people, but seems less than effected when war wipes them out. Distant. Even the chapters of Old Man’s War describing these deaths step back, as if to avert the reader’s gaze from the impersonality of war, just a little. He does, however, love his deceased wife more than anything, holding onto his feelings for her as if they can supplement his own emotions.

Showing an aptitude for staying one thought ahead of constantly changing battlefields, John Perry adapts to war and, as much as he can, excels at it. To the point of ultimately joining the military’s most elite branch, even if he forever hovers at the bottom of their ranks. Though death almost claims him countless times, he lives war as if he has known no peaceful life.

THEME

War doesn’t care about you. From the beginning to the end, Old Man’s War reiterates that death happens in an instant and often for no reason. Soldiers must find meaning in the tiny things or die with nothing. Even then, no one can say whether it matters in the end except the dead.

ENDING

The ending of Old Man’s War felt just a little rushed. The buildup and rising action worked great, but where the components for winning a decisive battle should have come together, they seemed to come out of nowhere and then vanish into dust. Perhaps because averting one disaster means just going on to the next crisis, rendering the details somewhat unimportant.

Criticisms

With the recognition that Old Man’s War was written during an earlier literary time than the era in which we find ourselves today, the narrative contained some troubling tropes. While I still enjoyed the story and the message it had to offer, it still contained aspects of the Bury Your Gays and Manic Pixie Dream Girl tropes. I’m not saying don’t read it, but I am saying be prepared.

My Rating: 3/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.24 stars

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Guided Passage

Light bloomed behind me in a passage I had already cleared, so bright as to drown out the glow of my flashlight. Looking back, I had to hold up a hand to shield my eyes. I could see nothing but the sandstone walls of the cavern.

“Are you lost?” a voice asked. It echoed around the chamber ahead as well as behind, surrounding me.

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Can you point that elsewhere?”

The light shifted away, its absence revealing a man holding a staff tipped with a glowing crystal. Shirtless and barefoot. A lean, hungry look in his narrow eyes.

“Where are you going?” the stranger asked. “I can guide you.”

“Have you been following me?” I asked. “You weren’t there when I passed through just now.”

“I live in these caves,” he replied. His shadow loomed huge on the wall between us. “I guide the lost.”

Noting that he had failed to answer my question, I said, “I wouldn’t take up your time. If you could just point me toward the way out…”

The man’s mouth pressed into a thin line. He paused so long I wondered if he would even respond. Then, arm raised toward the passage I had been following already, he said, “Take a left at the first fork.” With that, he dimmed the crystal, melting away down another passage. As he did, his fading shadow shifted to look just a little like a jackal.

After waiting a moment to ensure the man wouldn’t return, I pressed on. At the first fork, I took a right, following the directions of a map I had acquired for this trip. It wasn’t long before I reached the exit. Once out, I added a note to the map’s corner. ‘Offering of guidance not to be trusted.’

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Getting Collected

When I went to ride the elevator back downstairs, I found a pair of legs sticking out of the doors of the only working car. They had not been there when I first came up, looking clean but uncomfortable against the grimy concrete floor. Unmoving. Out of place.

The elevator dinged and the doors started shutting. They bounced off the sides of the woman lying half in and half out of the car, then slid back open with the realization that someone blocked their path. She made a little ‘oof’ noise, but otherwise didn’t move.

I stopped next to her legs, looking down at her. “Not a great place for a nap,” I observed.

She just blinked at the wall in response.

Once again the elevator dinged and the doors began to slide. I slipped between them, pressing them open with my back. Then I leaned there, wondering if she was having a fit.

“Just let them close,” the woman mumbled.

At least she was coherent. I scrunched my face in skepticism. “I don’t think I will,” I replied. “It’ll just hurt you more.”

Her shoulders hitched with a heavy exhalation. “Whatever.”

We stood that way a long time, the doors bumping my back every now and then. One or two other people showed up to use the elevator, but I shooed them in the direction of the stairs. They cast quizzical looks at me over their shoulders.

Sometime later, the woman got up on hands and knees and crawled into the elevator car. I stepped inside with her. The doors closed behind me with a relieved sigh.

She flopped down on the tiles and looked up at me. “I think I can make it home now.”

I nodded, hand hovering over the buttons panel. “What floor?”

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Emergency Dive

A muted clanking sounded from the door. All of us in the room tensed, thinking the water pressure outside had at last overpowered the sealed door’s capacity to keep it out. But then the clanking came again, rhythmic, like knocking.

“They’re here,” I said. “Get ready.”

The group moved around behind me. I took several breaths then held, and pulled the door open.

A torrent of water gushed in, swinging the door wide and slamming me into everyone in a confused mass of tangled limbs and roaring water and cries of surprise. The room began to fill in no time. We floated upward with it toward the rapidly approaching ceiling.

Once above the door frame, the waters calmed. Then a person burst up from below the surface, wearing goggles and a tank on her back. She popped out her mouthpiece, spraying water. “How many?” she asked.

“Seven,” a woman next to me replied.

The diver handed out Y-shaped breathers. I affixed mine just as my hair brushed the ceiling and water closed over my head. The lights flickered out. By the beam of a flashlight attached to the diver’s harness, I saw her counting heads. Satisfied everyone had their breathers in, she made a ‘follow me’ motion.

We filed after her back down through the door and into the flooded shopping center. Racks of floating shirts tugged against their hangers, like curious cloth creatures. Other divers led more swimmers to our destination, a floor just above the flood waters.

When we climbed out onto dry carpet, I said, “What happened?”

“Levy broke out of nowhere,” our rescuer replied. She began collecting breathers.

“What do we do now?” a man asked.

The diver pointed out toward a balcony. “Wait for rescue.” Then she flipped back into the water and vanished below.

The Hopeful Wanderer 52 – The Lonely Operator

Though the warped radio station door stuck to the jamb when I pulled it open, just inside, unseen machinery hummed productively. Unseen, because thin smoke drifted along the floor, curling around my shoes. I reopened the door, letting the strong breeze outside push it wide.

A distorted voice, as if piped through a ham radio, echoed from within the smoke. “Qpn-zee? Is that you?”

Ah. Wrong number. “No,” I called back. “But I got your signal.”

Eyes watering, I pulled my shirt up over my nose and stepped deeper into the station. The vague outline of a room opened out into a single, circular control booth, lit with the ambient glow of a constellation of buttons. Through the haze, I just made out a person seated at the widest control panel, twisted around to face me, one eye glowing.

Through the muffling fabric of my shirt, I said, “What’s on fire?” But as I moved closer, I could see the way the smoke rolled out from beneath the control panel. How the person did not move away from the danger, because their entire lower half trailed away in a thick tangle of wires to various locations around the booth.

This was a bot, hardwired into the station itself.

“One of my processors overheated,” the bot explained. “I am Static. Designation?”

“From trying to call Qpn-zee?” I asked.

“Designation?” it repeated.

I shrugged a little, never sure how to introduce myself. “I’m called the Wanderer.”

“Yeah, and I’m called the Operator,” said Static. It adjusted a knob and a whine I hadn’t noticed diminished. “Your real name?”

My mouth opened and closed. “I… don’t know.” I had never known.

Static narrowed its single eye at me. “You’re that Wanderer, then.”

I spread my hands, my shirt sliding off my nose. “That’s who you reached. Can we do something about this smoke?”

Static faced forward again, laughing a hard little laugh. “I didn’t ask you to help me. Only one person can do that.”

Stepping around an exposed pile of wires, I sidled toward the wall. “Qpn-zee?” I said. “Your signal got pretty far. Could be they’re just behind me.” I had noticed a window here covered with duct tape. Vinyl crinkled beneath my searching fingertips.

“How did you even hear me?” Static asked. It cut its gaze toward me just as I popped the window latch. “Hey, what are you-!”

I pushed the window outward and a gust blew in, stirring dust and smoke alike. Sunlight flooded the control booth, glinting off Static’s brushed metal face. It looked surprised at the fact of daylight.

I leaned my hip against the windowsill. “I don’t know much about digital machinery,” I explained, “but I do know you have to keep it cool. Can’t do that with everything boarded up.”

“I couldn’t-” Static started. “After Qpn-zee left, I… I couldn’t do that.”

Dusting my hands, I said, “I know I can’t help you, like you said. But if I meet Qpn-zee in my wanderings, I’ll send them out here.” I picked my way back to the hallway. On my way, I paused to face Static. “In your broadcast… it sounds like you miss them.”

Static looked flabbergasted. At what I had done or the fact of me, I couldn’t tell. Then it sort of smiled with its one eye. “Yeah. I do.”

As I stepped outside, its ham radio voice called out. “Hey! What am I supposed to do if it rains?!”

I raised an arm, waving behind me. “I’d say this place could use a little moss.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer 51 – Take Nothing

As I made to step off the sidewalk of a sunny city, a car with dark windows pulled to a stop right in front of me. I scurried back up onto the walk, frowning at having my way forward blocked. But as I made to step around the intruding car, I peered within and paused, realizing the windows were not just dark. The inside was brimming with plants. Green tendrils pressed against the passenger side window. I could not see the driver.

The window slid down. Some tendrils popped free and I jerked back to avoid the leafy onslaught. From within the verdant depths, a voice said, “A little help?”

“What’s wrong with your side?” I asked the wall of leaves.

“It’s jammed,” he replied. “Pull me out!”

I popped the handle and, keeping a firm grip on the jamb, I shoved my entire arm into the thicket. Cool leaves and twigs tickled me, then my fingers brushed against warm skin. We clasped at the wrist and, bracing my feet on the sidewalk, I hauled a man out. Vines wrapped around his torso and clung to his ankles, but they tore free as he slithered from the car and lay sprawled on the sidewalk.

With a raised eyebrow, I regarded one tendril inching its way out the door. “Looks like you brought the forest back with you.”

“You know how they say,” the man panted, “leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but memories?”

“Yeah?”

He climbed to his feet and brought his face close to mine. “They weren’t kidding.” Making a ‘forget it’ gesture at the shrubby car, he stumbled away.

Squinting at the escaping tendril, I poked it back up into the car. Then I shut the door on the forest within and went to call a tow truck.

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The Hopeful Wanderer 50 – A Summer Offering

In a wide-open field of long summer grass stood a lonesome table, covered in gray cloth and bearing a shallow wicker basket. A single shady tree overhung the table, inviting in the over-bright afternoon sunlight. Sweat beaded on the back of my neck and grass crunched beneath my feet as I approached. Behind me lay nothing; ahead, even more of the same. A gentle breeze carried to me the sweet scent of warm fruit.

At the table, I paused beneath the shade, allowing the sweat to dry from my hair. A clear vase of field flowers sat next to the wicker basket and inside the basket were a couple of muffins, cupped in brown wax paper and stuck in the middle with a bunch of raspberries still hanging from their stems. From my bag, I withdrew another of these and set it down next to the first two. No chairs were nearby and I remained standing, eyeing the tall elm tree.

Dark green leaves above rustled despite a lack of breeze. Wood groaned as one of the boughs stretched down, reaching with twiggy fingers and picking up the muffin I had offered. Branch and muffin retracted into the canopy and several crumbs fell to the grass to the sounds of munching.

“Thank you,” the elm tree whispered. “You may enter.”

Just past the table, the view of the empty field and open sky rippled. I put out a hand and slipped through the illusory sheen into a field of raspberry bushes. Their sweet scent hung on the air. Behind me, the table and the tree still stood, appearing faded, as if over-exposed to the sun. Ahead, blue mountains shimmered beyond the field. I set off toward these down a green, grassy lane, avoiding touching a single fruit along the way.

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