Fiction Reviews

Old Man's War

(2005 / 2007) John Scalzi, Tor (UK), 6.99, pbk, 318 pp, ISBN 978-0-330-4-5216-8


The pain in the gluteus maximus, regarding North American SF for those of us in Europe, is that often we get our editions a few years later. Scalzi's debut novel Old Man's War actually came out in the US in 2005 with the paperback soon after the hardback, but this side of the Pond (other than special imports) we only got our copies in 2007 even though in 2006 this novel was short-listed (by World SF Convention vote) for the 'best novel' Hugo Award: it was the only one of the Hugo nominations for 'best novel' that year not to have been published in the UK. Fortunately (but not for Scalzi) that season all the other Hugo nominations were available Europe-side, so Hugo voters in the British Isles only had to order one book from the States. (Having said that only the most dedicated European Hugo voters get US-only titles imported. So irrespective of merits it is not that surprising that, though nominated, Old Man's War did not go on to win the award; indeed Concatenation did predict the winner Spin). Nonetheless John Scalzi's novel gives Spin a good run for its money. Old Man's War is one of those irritating novels that is so entertaining that you cannot put it down even though you know you should really be getting on and doing something else!

The basic set up is this. The universe is more crowded than humans think; even those on Earth in the future see space as being big and empty. However the truth is that while space is big, it is far from empty. Humanity is surrounded by alien civilizations each of which is hungry for new habitable planets. Such galactic demographics do nothing but facilitate conflict. A fighting force (kept away from Earth) is therefore needed to find new worlds, help protect colonies and retaliate against alien competitors. Once you are 75 years of age you can join up for this space army, get the best technology to help you to extend your life, and do a tour of service. The catch, in exchange for a new lease on life, is that you cannot return to Earth which is largely uncontaminated by technological developments gained through encounters with other races. Of course you have to survive your tour first. Old Man's War is the story of one John Parry who enlists and heads off to tread boldly. His job is 'to go meet strange new people and cultures and kill the sons of bitches'.

Old Man's War is good hard SF. It has an interesting FTL skip drive making use of a 'conservation of unlikeliness' as well as the Multiverse theory occasionally toyed with by physicists. Biology (as is all too common in SF) comes off less well: for example with nutritional compatibility being down to similar genetics (actually it is phenotypic expression and use of organic molecules we can digest that really counts even if there are some nutritional genomic phenomena). This is though a quibble as Old Man's War is gung-ho action with reasonable well thought-out use of SF tropes (techno-weaponry, human enhancement, extra terrestrials etc.) and a rollicking pace that makes the book such a great read. This is the sort of book that I enjoyed back in my student days and, quite frankly being young at heart, still enjoy today. In fact this is so much so that comparisons with Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959) and Haldeman's The Forever War (1974) really do leap out at you. Indeed if I had to name my four top military SF books of all time then in addition to these two I would certainly add Old Man's War. (I said 'top four' because I'm sure if I racked my memory I'd come up with a fourth.) Old Man's War really is that good.

I started off with a bit of a moan that we do not get all Hugo nominees published over here (western Europe): which makes me wonder just what publishers comissioning editors and the buyers for specialist shops, or shops with large SF sections, actually do to select their stock and earn their salaries? So the question you may be wondering is whether I think Old Man's War should have won the 2006 Hugo instead of Spin?   Well, let's face it. To get nominated for a Hugo is no mean feat (though personally these days the Locus Award is a better guide as to notable SF (it has both more voters and it segregates the fantasy). Both Spin and Old Man's War are great books. However in 2006 I think the Hugo voters (those registered with the US Worldcon) got it right. (Some year's, it has to be said, they most certainly get it wrong to the point when one almost suspects vote-rigging or at least heavy lobbying.) Spin has a great fresh concept at its heart and is also a fantastic story. Old Man's War, though a marvellous book, does not have such a novel concept underpinning it: it is after all a tale of interstellar war, which is undeniably a long-standing mainstay for a substantial tranche of SF. What it is, is an excellent re-imagining of militaristic space opera for the early 21st century and I'll bet your boots that, like Starship Troopers and The Forever War, it will remain in print for decades. I therefore unashamedly recommend Old Man's War to genre aficionados so strongly that I could be accused of bondage.

Jonathan Cowie

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