Monday, April 24, 2006

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man's War is the debut novel from John Scalzi, and has been nominated for the Hugo award for best novel of 2005. Considering this reception, Scalzi has also been nominated for the Campbell award for best new SF author.

Like all serious voters, I'm reading each novel -- indeed each work -- that has been nominated for a Hugo so I am capable of making a reasoned mark come Worldcon in LA this August. First on my to read list was OMW, both because the premise sounded fascinating, and because I had heard it was a nod to the Grandmaster himself, Robert A. Heinlein.

The premise is that when a man or woman reaches a certain age, they join the military and are given -- presumably, no one knows for certain -- new bodies. The cost of the new form and fresh start is 10 years of military service and to never look upon the planet Earth again.

The story is as interesting as it sounds, and the book is an enjoyable read. However, I can not in good conscience state that it deserves to be considered for Science Fiction's greatest honor.

Let me preface this roll-call of flaws with a note. I am a former Marine, and when military tactics and battle are portrayed, I am incredibly nit-picky. Also, I was personally bothered by comments one of his fictional characters made about Marines. I do not know how willing I was to give the book an honest chance after I was irked by these comments.

It seemed as if Old Man's War was an attempt to update Starship Troopers using the science and ideas popular in modern SF. If this was the case, I found it to be a failure, not only because it was already done so well in 1975 by Joe Haldeman with his incredible The Forever War, but that Scalzi also fails to tackle any societal or political issues. In short, if OMW had a deeper message, it was lost on me.

Scalzi's love for Heinlein is evident, to the point of becoming tiresome. There are a slew of Heinleinesque 'rennaissance men,' who seem to enter the picture just in time to go on a page-long monologue to explain something. It's cute, but it's been done. A lot.

One thing that really bothered me was that just as Scalzi was about to explain some fascinating scientific ideas, his rennaissance man of the hour would tell us that we don't have the math to understand it. Three times, by my count, was this used, and each time I grew more wearied of it. When I'm reading Science Fiction, I want science, thank you, and I don't have much patience for such cop-outs.

On discussing this point with Scalzi, (who seems to be a genuinely nice person and knowledgable fan) he stated -- and proved quite succinctly, in my mind -- that this was not due to any lack of science knowledge on his part, but merely to avoid confusion. He offered up his astronomy book, The Rough Guide To The Universe as ample evidence.

Fair enough.

My largest issues with the work was the military tactics. Some were simple and unbelievable, and one instance was nothing short of preposterous. For instance, we are to believe that our protagonaist invents a two round burst, the first round to take down armor, the second to do the dirty work. The incorporation of the three round burst for the same purposes was developed by the U.S. Marine Corps prior to the Korean War.

Now, as I stated before -- nitpicky. However, these things kept me from being absorbed in an otherwise very enjoyable novel. There are ideas here that are fascinating and original, and the book is not without merit.

But don't pick up Old Man's War expecting it to be much more than a fun romp and a Heinlein pastiche, sans the politics and deep understanding of military tactics.


Collector's Notes:

Despite my own misgivings, this book obviously has its supporters. Mr Scalzi has informed me that the hardcover has been through five or six printings, and that alone speaks well for it's collectability in the future. The sequel, The Ghost Brigades is doing very well in hardcover, and a succesful series will always lead to the first book rising in value. If it were to win the Hugo, first printings could easily rise to 100 dollars or more within a week. Either way, a first edition, first printing hardcover seems to be something you should consider investing in.

Comments on "Old Man's War by John Scalzi"


Blogger Race said ... (3:08 PM) : 

You were much nicer this time around. :p


Anonymous Neil Clarke said ... (3:42 PM) : 

I enjoyed this one, but can see how you might have a problem with it. I'm the same way when someone uses really bad technology or computer science in a book or show.

Just received my copy of Ghost Brigade back from John, so it's next on my pile.



Anonymous Mr. X said ... (4:35 PM) : 

I just finished reading it this afternoon. It was entertaining, but OMW certainly traipsed through much of the same terrain as The Forever War. I don't think it should win the Hugo either, but it seems like the sort of thing that will win votes from a lot of "classic" sci-fi fans.



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