Friday, November 20, 2009

[Book Review] Old Man’s War

A sci-fi novel by John Scalzi

I’ve read two books by John Scalzi. The first was a collection of his blog articles, all focused on guidance for prospective writers. It had a lot of similarities to King’s On Writing, but also emphasized Scalzi’s experience with online communities and things like blogs. It was in some part due to Scalzi’s suggestions that I went ahead and fired up Virtual Vellum as a blog, rather than just keeping a private writing journal in Word. He suggested that a writer who had taken the time to make a name for himself online would stand a better chance at getting published than an equally-talented writer without such credentials. What’s funny is that I mentioned this to Mil Millington, a humor writer whose work I’ve followed for many years, and Mil had a different experience. He said that having an online following seduced publishers into spending less on marketing than they otherwise would because “you already have an online following. They’ll buy your stuff regardless.” This despite the fact that his online followers were used to getting his content for free and weren’t the least inclined, generally speaking, to pay money for it. Mil also said that, essentially, getting published is a matter of pure and unvarnished luck unless you happen to already be famous for something else like winning the Olympics or sleeping with a politician. Well, I don’t think being on Good Morning America for two minutes really counts as famous (heck, I had lunch at the Dinosaur on Wednesday and nobody there even recognized me until I said hello to the owner). I think it’s safe to say that such fame, such as it is, is fleeting at best and probably isn’t going to help me sell any books. And my wife’s not a politician and isn’t likely to be, so that's that for the other option. All that’s left, then, is raw luck, to which I figure that my chances are as good as anybody else’s and I might as well have a go at it.

None of which has anything at all to do with the other book: Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi. But nobody’s paying me to write book reviews which means I’m free to ramble on during the introduction about whatever amuses me.

Old Man’s War is a quick read, though I’m not sure if that’s because it’s a short book (though it’s certainly not hefty by any means) or because it takes hold of you by the skull and pulls your eyeballs across each page as rapidly as they can rip comprehension from the very text on the paper. I literally read the entire book in a single (fairly long) night, and I can’t think of any other book I’ve ever done that with. I’m not a terribly fast reader and usually only read 60-80 pages in a sitting. Instead, I sat up until the wee hours and devoured Old Man’s War from cover to cover.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s the greatest book I’ve ever read, but like a really good movie or TV show it’s just a pleasurable, welcome read that does such a good job of making you care about the characters and their situation that you simply can’t wait to see what happens next.

The premise of the novel is very interesting – that, in the future, humans have achieved interstellar space travel, however the ones who have it keep the Earth, their ultimate homeworld, largely isolated from it. Those who leave the Earth can never return, whether they go to colonize new worlds or to join the spacefaring colonial military. In fact, those who do join the military are almost exclusively retirees aged 75 and up who are hoping for the advanced medical technologies of the colonial military to somehow make them young again. And without giving too much away, it’s fair to say that that is just what happens, after a fashion.

But the galaxy is a big, nasty place, inhabited by a wide variety of alien creatures, most of whom either want the same planets that humans are trying to colonize, or may actually want to have humans as a snack. Or both. So the main character who, like the author is named John and who, like the author lived in Ohio and who, like the author worked as a writer, soon finds himself hurled headlong into a series of pitched battles against monstrous extraterrestrials. As far as I know, the author hasn’t actually done that yet, but consciously or otherwise I suspect he wants to.

The strengths of this novel are several. First, the author handles the technology in a believable way that’s sufficiently accessible to the average reader to be engaging without being overwhelming or seeming too much like magic. Next, he develops very real-seeming characters who resonate as if they’re people you might actually have met. This makes it much easier for the reader to care about and identify with them as they experience some truly amazing, and in some cases horrific, adventures. Lastly, his pace is good in terms of balancing action with suspense, both interspersed with little dips into “daily life” to break the tension. Best of all, he raises some really interesting questions about everything from the application of medical technology to remake people into what they might want to be (possibly in violation of the basic design premises of what entails the human being) to the ethics of dealing with foreign powers (in this case true aliens) in a scramble for limited and precious resources and with an assumption that failure to maintain a balance of power (or, even better, actual superiority) puts the entire human species at risk of annihilation. He doesn’t ever get too deep – that’s part of what makes this a very quick read – but the issues are there for the discerning reader who cares to engage them.

Beyond the fact that I ripped through this book with unprecedented speed, the best compliment I can give it is that I’m very much looking forward to getting my hands on the sequels. Actually, the best compliment might arguably be that I’d love it if it were made into a movie. Hard to say which is the higher praise, but regardless it’s safe to conclude that I liked it a lot. If you’re a fan of futurism and small-unit combat against alien forces, then I highly recommend Old Man’s War by John Scalzi.

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