Book Review: Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Wednesday, September 14, 2011
You never know what you'll run into while clicking through the blogosphere. I don't remember exactly how I got there, but one day I found John Scalzi's blog. He writes an interesting, literate blog and posts almost every day, so I continued to return to it.

Scalzi is the current president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, so you can guess his chosen genre. I was kind of curious about what he wrote but, as I've said before, I don't read nearly as much SF&F as I used to. However, when he announced that "Old Man's War" was going to be made into a film directed by Wolfgang Petersen, the book made it to the top of my nook wishlist. In case you don't know who Wolfgang Petersen is, he directed The Perfect Storm, In the Line of Fire, Air Force One, The Neverending Story, and the amazing Das Boot.

I was disappointed in this book. To begin with, the first half of the book was largely exposition: an introduction to the main character and a lot about the society and technology. Nothing. Much. Happens. Science fiction has a tendency to do more of this than other genres because half the fun of the writing, and often the reading, is extrapolating what technology is possible and how that will affect society. But an author can weave this into his story seamlessly or, as in Old Man's War, it becomes the primary focus of pages and pages of the book.

When I finally got to the second half and things started happening, meaning the plot became prominent, the more I read, the more I thought, "This is just like Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers,' only with bioengineered bodies instead of mechanical suits."

Heinlein did it better.

Now, Heinlein was one of my favorite writers in my teen years. "The Rolling Stones" was my introduction to science fiction. I took it out of the school library because it was about a family named Stone. I've reread "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" multiple times and I'm positive that that book is one of the reasons I became a computer programmer. And "Stranger in a Strange Land" opened my eyes to thinking about religion in a different way. So Scalzi had some pretty big shoes to fill.

To his credit, the author does acknowledge Robert Heinlein for inspiring this book. I was glad to see that and it did make me feel better about the novel. But not enough better.

I think the key difference between Heinlein's version and Scalzi's version is that Heinlein created characters I really cared about. As I read "Starship Troopers," I felt like I was inside Johnny's skin. With "Old Man's War", I always felt some distance from John Perry. Maybe it's because Perry's attachments to other characters are ephemeral. Most of the people he gets close to die. The one character who promises a continuing relationship isn't really who she appears to be. Maybe it's because Perry doesn't have much vulnerability. I like my characters to have flaws. Perry was always the hero.

The other thing that bothered me about "Old Man's War" is that it presented the human race as being in an imperialistic land grab against every other race in the universe. The premise was that there are only so many life-friendly planets and we had the right to conquer as many of them as we could--even if they were already inhabited by another species. My memory may be wrong, but in "Starship Troopers" the war was being fought because the "bugs" were trying to conquer planets where the human race had established colonies. We were defending ourselves against the invaders.

I keep wondering what Publisher's Weekly and World Science Fiction Convention members who nominated it for the Hugo saw in this book that I didn't. Maybe it's because I haven't been reading science fiction over the past few decades, so I don't know what's standard in the genre any more. Regardless, this wasn't engaging enough to encourage me to read any more books by this author.

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