Old Man’s War: Decent, but not revolutionary

I discovered John Scalzi’s blog Whatever a couple months back and I’ve been reading nearly everything he’s posted to it since. The name of the blog is blah, but don’t let that fool you. He’s been doing this blogging thing for longer than the word “blog” has existed, so the name of his site was more passable then than now. But ignoring that issue, he’s a very witty writer, and his blog posts are consistently entertaining. And since he’s become a published science fiction author in recent years, he’s also done a fair bit of promotion of his books (Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Android’s Dream, The Last Colony, and the upcoming Zoe’s Tale). So for my flight back from Phoenix, I bought Old Man’s War and settled in for a marathon reading session.

First off, let me begin by saying that I started the book about an hour into the flight, didn’t put it down until I deplaned, read most of the rest of it after driving home from the airport, fell asleep, woke up, and read the remaining few pages before breakfast. So on that count alone, I won’t deny liking it. I’ve read many novels that simply weren’t able to grab me; Old Man’s War did. Heck, some novels I find so lacking in entertainment that I don’t ever get around to finishing.

But I did have some problems with the novel. John Scalzi seems to possess only one writing style. On his blog, it works excellently, but his absurdist humor kind of felt out of place in a novel that takes itself so seriously. For instance, his main character, John Perry, gets blown out of an exploded shuttle, with shrapnel slicing away the lower part of his head, and then as his body ragdolls through mid-air, he becomes “possibly the first person in history to kick himself in the uvula.” Come on. It had me chuckling, or rather, marveling at the absurdity of what I had just read. It was also jarring, and temporarily broke my immersion in the story. The rest of the novel contains similar snippets like this. And John Perry is so consistently making dark and dry jokes you can just tell John Scalzi based John Perry off himself. If that and the shared first name aren’t enough of a clue, John Perry was a writer before he became a soldier.

I also had some problems with some of the cliché characters. There’s an idiotic loud-mouthed soldier, the standard caricature of a gung-ho, cock-sure warrior with more machismo than sense, who is so impatient for battle to begin that he promptly gets himself killed by peeking out from cover in excitement after killing an alien as he mouths off about the awesomeness of war. And then the description of his death is especially visceral, with bullet-shockwave-pressurized brain matter spewing forth from his head as he’s shot, as if to especially emphasize to the reader that this guy deserved to die for his foolishness.

There’s also a smarmy, condescending politician-cum-soldier who thinks so highly of himself that he believes he can single-handedly negotiate peace in the middle of war; he drops his weapon, approaches a group of aliens, and is instantly turned into a fine bloody mist when all of the aliens simultaneously fire their club-shaped traditional weapons (which just so happen to be shotguns). It was another especially gruesome death, carefully written by Scalzi as if to say “This jerkwad deserved it”. And I’m not sure I like the message of it either; it’s a non sequitur attack against giving diplomacy a chance.

You could see the deaths of both of these cliché characters telegraphed from pages away. While I suppose these scenes were intended to be satisfying, indulging a schadenfreudist delight in watching idiots get their just desserts, they just left me feeling hollow, and especially in the case of the first character, contradictory. The soldiers in these scenes are all 75-year-olds given new bodies right before being shipped off to war; how many of the elderly still retain such levels of foolishness and impudence that can only be found in youth?

And now here’s where I really get really nit picky. I had some fundamental problems with the universe of Old Man’s War. It’s full of alien races all vying for a limited number of star systems, all of them at a sufficiently equal enough level of technology so as to make all battles fair. This simply doesn’t make any sense. Considering how far warfare progresses in a single generation here on Earth, and considering that the universe is 13.5 billion years old, the odds of having many different civilizations all at essentially equal levels of technology are zilch. The first species to achieve intelligence, even if they only won the race by a thousand years, would dominate the galaxy. There wouldn’t be battles, there would be massacres. Here on Earth we’ve progressed from cavalry to nuclear aircraft carriers in the span of a single century. Picture how imbalanced that war would be, and then expand the difference in war-fighting technology out to millions of years.

Don’t go thinking, from all of my criticism, that I didn’t enjoy the book; I did. I purchased the sequel, The Ghost Brigades, and I will be reading it. But I just wouldn’t call this novel revolutionary. It sits squarely within Robert A. Heinlein’s and Joe Haldeman’s genre of action-packed military science fiction, with some of Scalzi’s own quirks, but it does not push its boundaries or attempt to transcend them. This is most unfortunate, because what I appreciate more than anything else in my science fiction is making me think. I would attempt to compare this novel against another scifi novel that I recently read, Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, but there really is no comparison there. I would love to see Scalzi make one possible with a future novel, though.

3 Responses to “Old Man’s War: Decent, but not revolutionary”

  1. Cyde Weys Says:

    Oh, and I didn’t even mention the part where John Perry and crew attack a world of one-inch-tall intelligent bipedal aliens. They essentially go Godzilla on the place, finding the most effective tactic against the aliens (because their guns are overkill) to be stepping on them. I wish I was making that up. But apparently the battles are “more even” in space, because really small spaceships on a scale of one-inch-tall beings are hard to hit.

    This go along with my critique in the last section, because there are pretty established limits on intelligence with brain size. Simply put, bigger is better. You can’t have human-level intelligence in a being the size of a bug; you would have bug-level intelligence. Just like how the weight of an animal scales with the cube of its size but the carrying capacity of its legs only scales with the square of its size, thus establishing an effective maximum size for terrestrial animals (and meaning ants can get away with incredibly spindly legs but humans need good-sized legs), potential brain volume also scales with the cube of size. You can only fit so many neurons into such a small package (and there are very real chemical, biological, and physiological limits on how small and how effective each individual neuron can be).

    Long story short, any intelligent species that manage to construct spaceships won’t be much smaller than us. There’s no reason they couldn’t be much larger, of course — there’s no fundamental reason dinosaurs couldn’t have evolved large brains — but they won’t be much smaller.

    About the only scenario I can come up with for having small intelligent beings is if they had a hivemind, kind of like how the manowar jellyfish is made up from lots of individual creatures. Individual beings would be ~1 inch tall and about as smart as a bug, but when a large number of them assembled and networked, they could display a human-level intelligence. So these beings would be intelligent on an aggregate, but not an individual, level. Heck, that would make a good science fiction story (and I do recall reading something like this, but I cannot remember which novel).

  2. William Says:

    He’s got a novel that’s up on his site for free that I rather liked. “Agent to the Stars” or something to that effect. You might want to give that a read if you haven’t yet.

  3. “The Ghost Brigades” shows clear signs of Scalzi’s improvement as an author | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

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