Purveyor of Tall Tales.

Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi


In what seems like contradiction, free is very much the current marketing buzzword for people trying to increase sales. Since Tor – in return for your email address – decided to release a book a week for free via their website it seems like everyone’s been jumping on the bandwagon. In such a climate it’s easy to forget that long before Tor released Old Man’s War via this scheme a few weeks ago the novel was first distributed via Scalzi’s blog way back in the day.

Indeed that’s how the book got sold to Tor in the first place.

This is a story that has entered Internet mythology. Casually ignoring the artful wordsmithery with which Scalzi built an online audience that makes the rest of us gnash our teeth with envy. Wannabe writers and aspiring super bloggers gather round campfires late at night to talk in awe of the Scalzi. The guy living the dream, the man who managed to garner a book deal via his blog. Asking themselves what the secret is? As if he’d done a deal with a devil he doesn’t believe in or had performed some kind of magic trick.

Ok, so I’m exaggerating to make a point. That being: I was really curious to read Old Man’s War to see if I what made it sell – beyond the author already having an audience. But not because I think he pulled off some trick beyond years of hard graft. In point of fact I’m curious to read any novel that marked the start of a successful author’s professional fiction career. This is because I’m a literary geek. There I admitted it.

So anyway, I downloaded it.

Old Man’s War is John Perry’s story. On his 75th birthday, following the death of his wife, John Perry joins the colonial defense force (CDF). The CDF are the military force that defends the planetary real estate colonists have carved out of a galaxy populated with all sorts of competing sentient life-forms. Charting his military career from recruit to captain the story follows John, a former writer, as he tries to square his humanity with the endless cycle of violence he encounters in the CDF.

It would be easy to point out the book’s parallels with Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Trooper’s and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. Or indeed to make observation that the idea is an interesting inversion of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. A more brave – or is that pretentious – reviewer might even go so far as to reference Shakespeare’s observation of old age as second childhood and that they (OMW and EG) might in fact be the same idea, the same truth: that humanity involves a healthy dose of the violent killer to make us what we are.

But I think that misses the point. And indicates my disappearing up my own arse.

In my view – and I may be wrong – Old Man’s War is not really intended as a literary SF piece. It’s meant to be an entertaining ripping yarn, a fresh spin on the sub-genre that has grown up amongst the previously mentioned titles. Yes: there are some very deftly woven bits of science in there but what’s there is light, really only present to help the story move along; and that is how it should be. Yes: there is depth to the characters. And yes: the writing is very good, very accessible and doesn’t get in the way of the story.

But no: this is not a Science Fiction Epic that leaves you with a more sophisticated understanding of string theory, multiple universes or the hypothetical development of other sentient lifeforms. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable I-was-smiling-the-whole-time-I-read-it space romp that I pretty much couldn’t put down.

And I loved it.

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