03 Mar 2005
John Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” is “Starship Troopers” without the politics, “Star Trek” with more vicious enemies and “Star Wars” with better dialog. It’s set several hundred years in the future, when Earthlings are colonizing the planets under the aegis of the Colonial Defense Force, a super-secret organization solely responsible for getting Earth’s excess population off the planet and settling other worlds. Attached to this peaceful mission is a military one, since the colonists are competing for resources against alien races, some of whom have discovered that, raw or cooked, humans taste just like chicken.
To fill its ranks, the CDF recruits Earthlings who are at least 75 years old, and who agree to leave the planet forever. How they’re turned into super-troopers is as secret as how they’ve managed to build space elevators and ships capable of faster-than-light travel, but that doesn’t stop a steady stream of retirees from signing up.
John Perry is one of those recruits and “Old Man’s War” follows his journey into the brave new world. Scalzi tells his story in prose that’s pared down, stripped of the “writerly” curliques that draw attention to the writer. His dialog is plain and direct and the characters all tend to talk alike, but that’s most readers won’t care about and it gives critics something to carp about. Who cares if they all sound alike, when you can still tell them apart, and you get scenes like this:
The recruiter was busy typing something on the computer and didn’t bother to look up as I came in. “Be right with you,” she muttered, by way of a more or less Pavlovian response to the door opening.
“Take your time,” I said. “I know the place is packed.” This attempt at marginally sarcastic humor went ignored and unappreciated, which has been par for the course for the last few years; good to see I had not lost my form. I sat down in front of the desk and waited for the recruiter to finish whatever she was doing.
“You coming or going?” she asked, still without actually looking up at me.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“Coming or going,” she repeated. “Coming in to do your Intent to Join sign-up, or going out to start your term?”
“Ah. Going out, please.”
This finally got her to look at me, squinting out through a rather severe pair of glasses. “You’re John Perry,” she said.
“That’s me. How did you guess?”
She looked back to her computer. “Most people who want to enlist come in on their birthday, even though they have thirty days afterwards to formally enlist. We only have three birthdays today. Mary Valory already called to say she won’t be going. And you don’t look like you’d be Cynthia Smith.”
“I’m gratified to hear that,” I said.
“And since you’re not coming in for an initial sign-up,” she continued, ignoring yet another stab at humor, “It stands to reason you’re John Perry.”
“I could just be a lonely old man looking wandering around looking for conversation,” I said.
“We don’t get many of those around here,” she said. “They tend to be scared off by the kids next door with the demon tattoos.” She finally pushed her keyboard away and gave me her full attention. “Now, then. Let’s see some ID, please.”
“But you already know who I am,” I reminded her.
“Let’s be sure,” she said. There was not even the barest hint of a smile when she said this. Dealing with garrulous old farts every day had apparently taken its toll.
I handed over my driver’s license, birth certificate and national identity card. She took them, reached into her desk for a handpad, plugged it into the computer and slid it over to me. I placed my hand on it palm down and waited for the scan to finish. She took the pad and slid my ID card down the side to match the print information.”You’re John Perry,” she said, finally.
“And now we’re back where we started,” I said.
Part of the power and pleasure in “Old Man’s War” is Scalzi’s unveiling of the brave new world Perry finds himself in. Armed with advanced technologies Earth’s scientists can’t even begin to understand, the CDF keeps its secrets on a need-to-know basis. We don’t learn how Perry goes from geriatric to super-trooper, or is transported across galaxies until he does. As an experienced science writer, Scalzi grounds his world with plausible explanations that keep the story together, occasionally throwing in surprising twists that makes perfect sense.
One of the snippets broadcast to us via BrainPal was a segment of an intercepted food program, in which one of the Rraey’s most famous celebrity chefs discussed the best way to carve up a human for multiple food uses, neck bones being particularly prized for soups and consommes.
But “Old Man’s War” is also a very funny novel in very unexpected ways. To instruct CDF recruits about their new equipment, they’re provided with a brochure filled with trademarked brand names and breathless prose about their capabilities:
Never be unconnected again! You’ll never lose your BrainPal™ computer because it resides in your own brain. Our proprietary Assistive Adaptive Interface works with you so you can access your BrainPal™ your way. Your BrainPal™ also serves to coordinate non-organic technologies in your new body, such as SmartBlood™. CDF servicepeople swear by this amazing piece of technology — and so will you.
With its vision of a scientifically progressive future, alien encounters that’s more Darwinian than Roddenberrian, and its protagonist a steady, modest hero capable of innovating on the fly, “Old Man’s War” is the best Heinlein novel Heinlein never wrote.