This is another science fiction book, like Ancillary Justice, that has been recommended to me for ages. Happily, unlike Ancillary Justice, I loved this one. The premise is so simple and so smart: Humanity has taken to the stars; the universe is full of aliens, and the Colonial Defense Force, made up of humans way more technically advanced than the ones left behind on Earth, recruits old folks to fight their wars. You can’t join up until you’re 75. They’ll do something to you to get you into fighting shape, but they won’t tell you what, and once you’ve joined, you can never go back to Earth.
The first 3/4 of this book was some of the best science fiction I’ve read in a while. I could not put it down. It combines everything I love in science fiction: great characters, solid world-building, and big questions about identity. John Perry is just a fantastic narrator–he’s funny, often crass, and blunt. I’m picky about my first person narrators, but Perry does not disappoint. The first person narration adds some much to the book. It’s perfect.
There’s a lot of discovery in the first part of the novel, as Perry navigates his new life. It was all completely engrossing and fascinating, and even though most of the intense action didn’t take place until later, the beginning of the novel–watching Perry get used to his strange new reality–was my favorite part.
The last quarter of the book dragged for me. I can’t put my finger on why, exactly, but it started to feel a bit more predictable. That sense of newness, of exploration, was replaced by a more conventional war story. I suspect this was mostly me, and not the book itself. There were some fascinating plot twists near the end of the novel, and I was totally on board for that, but some of my initial sense of wonder and enchantment had worn off.
In the end, my quibbles are just that–quibbles. Old Man’s War manages to be both an engrossing space opera and a book that delves into some fascinating questions about what makes us who we are. This is what sci fi does best, I think–tackle this question of what is human. There are thousands of fascinating ways to do it, and every time I come upon a book that does it in another new way, I’m totally hooked. Old Man’s War went to some fascinating places regarding consciousness, embodiment, humanity, identity, and memory. It’s also got some interesting things to say about colonization–both in the wide open universe, and back on Earth.
Also, let’s talk about aliens. This is something else about sci fi that just blows my mind: the seemingly infinite reach of the human imagination. Writers have imagined an astonishing array of aliens, and I will never get tired of reading about them. I loved the creativity of Scalzi’s aliens, even if his vision of the universe is bleak and militaristic. It’s not the upbeat, peaceful, cooperative vision of the universe in Becky Chambers’ novels (see my review of A Closed and Common Orbit), but, happily, there’s room in sci fi for more than one vision of the universe. Scalzi’s is dark, but fascinating. His world-building is the sort of world-building I love best, the kind that has an underbelly you can’t really see. It felt so seamless that I trusted it implicitly. There was no info-dumping, but I wasn’t confused, either, not for a moment (I’m looking at you, Ancillary Justice).
I’m looking forward to the rest of the books in this world.