Friday, August 03, 2007

Review: Old Man's War

I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army.

With these words, John Scalzi began his first novel to critical acclaim. I've reviewed the other two books in the series, The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony, and reading them in reverse order did not spoil the first novel at all.

The book is about John Perry, the protagonist of the story who trades in his old life for a new one as a soldier. For reasons too complicated to get into (they will be explained in the book), humankind's defense is staffed by geriatrics who are given a new body, along with an obligation to serve for 10 years. At 75, you get to have the body of a fit 20 year old again. Who wouldn't jump at the chance? You might get shot at, but you'd die of other reasons anyway.

As war stories go, this novel isn't interesting at the level of The Forever War or even Star ship Troopers. It is clear here that Scalzi intends merely to spin a grippingly good yarn, and he succeeds, in droves.

Yet, you can see the hints of what would develop in later novels into a more serious streak, and the irreverence and humor is wonderful. One of my favorite sections is the user's manual provided to new recruits on their new body:

Does My New Body Have a Brand Name?
Yes! Your new body is known as the Defender Series XII, "Hercules" model. Technically, it's known as CG/CDF Model 12, Revision 1.2.11... Additionally, each body has its own model number for maintenance purposes. You can access your own number through your BrainPal(tm). Don't worry, you can still use your given name for every day purposes!

This sense of humor (all too frequently missing in Starship Troopers) shows up often enough to amuse the reader, but disappears during action sequences or serious moments. The pacing of the book is also excellent, dragging you along and keeping you turning pages. The characters aren't very well developed, but the first person narrative works very well, and you learn to like the characters. There's a bit of romance that's a little far-fetched to me, but maybe not to everyone. There isn't a bad ending here, though it's nothing profound.

If I have one complaint about this book, it is that it is far too short. If you brought this book onto a 4 hour plane flight, you'd be finished by the end of it, so you'd have to carry a sequel or two if you're flying somewhere far. But maybe that's not a bad thing: extra moments spent in Scalzi's universe will provide entertainment far beyond what you might expect from words on a page.

Highly recommended!
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