It’s reading challenge time again. After the months it took me to get through The Diamond Age, this one only took a couple evenings. This time I’m reading John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, published in 2005. I enjoy Scalzi’s work, which is often fairly light and humorous. I read this novel a few years back, and was curious how I’d feel about it on this re-read. Spoilers Ahead!
This story follows John Perry, an old man whose wife passed away. On his 75th birthday he enlists in the Colonial Defense Forces for a term of at least two but as many as 10 years. Nobody who enlists is ever heard from again, but the rumor is they will turn you young again so you can fight. That’s sort-of right. In truth they clone new bodies for all the recruits, and swap their consciousness from their old frail bodies into shiny new green super bodies full of patented technology.
There is a fun section of the book where John gets adjusted to space and the CDF, meets new friends, and they try out their fancy new bodies. This ends up being bittersweet, as throughout the book we see most of that group of friends end up as casualties of the sprawling conflicts the CDF is fighting on multiple planets. The book has a lot of humor in it, but it also doesn’t let you forget that it’s a military sci-fi novel where there is lots of war and horrible death. There’s even a moment where our protagonist is hit with the emotional weight of all the strange horrible things he’s seen and done. Instead of being removed from combat, or told to repress those feelings, he’s basically told “good, everybody goes through this sooner or later, and now you can start working your way through it.”
Perry keeps moving up the ranks through a combination of dumb luck and occasional quick thinking. It serves him well right up to the point where he is severely wounded. This is where the story gets more interesting. As he is nearly dying he sees what looks like his dead wife, Kathy, there to rescue him. It turns out that it wasn’t a hallucination. Ten years before John enlisted, he and Kathy went together to the recruitment office to declare their intent to enlist and do a pre-screen. It turns out that people who do this and die before they can actually join up still end up serving the CDF. Kathy’s DNA was used to make a clone. If she had lived it would have been set up for her to swap into when she enlisted. When she died they started making modifications to it to prepare it for the special forces “ghost brigade.” John was rescued by his wife’s clone, Jane Sagan.
It turns out the special forces of the CDF is made up entirely of these “ghosts.” They are independent people with no memories from their DNA donors, with extra upgrades. While the infantry gains value from the lifetime of experience their recruits come with, special forces soldiers have the benefit of never knowing what it was like to live in a fragile, normal human body. They do crazy, superhuman things in combat because they are superhuman and they never had any reason to doubt it.
The rest of the book involves John and Jane getting to know each other a little, and John having the unfortunate opportunity to repay Jane for saving his life by saving hers. While they never actually see each other again during the novel, they do still communicate and eventually plan to meet each other again, if and when they both retire.
I enjoy Scalzi’s style and I’ve read several of his other novels. Re-reading this book actually made me realize how he has grown as a writer. His newer works like Lock In and The Dispatcher have a bit more depth and subtlety while still bringing his trademark humor. There are a few places in this one where it feels like things could have been fleshed out a bit better, or the connective tissue between sections could have been a bit more developed. Still, Old Man’s War is a very enjoyable read and I would recommend it.
TL;DR: Military sci-fi with heart and humor. Definitely worth the quick read.
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Rating: 4/5 stars
Next up: The Legend of Drizzt Series by R. A. Salvatore