Book Review: Old Man’s War

81uiGyQP67L._SL1500_Old Man’s War introduces itself with some of the best opening lines I’ve ever read in a novel: “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

So simple, so compelling. Further, it points us to the two great themes that dominate this tale – that of love and that of war. Far from being a lightweight interstellar shoot ’em up, Old Man’s War has the heart and brain of a modern classic. It’s not just a good read – it’s a great one.

In Scalzi’s futuristic world, the good news is that mankind finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets suitable for human habitation are few – and our claim to those few is violently challenged by other alien races. So we hit back: for the sake of the old world, Earth, and for the sake of new ones. This war has been going on for decades, and signs of a reprieve are nowhere to be seen.

Back on Earth itself, most of our resources are in the hands of the CDF (Colonial Defense Force). Once you reach retirement age, you can join up with the CDF. Youngsters aren’t wanted; people who carry a lifetime worth of experience are. If you sign up, you’ll be whisked off Earth and never permitted to return. You’ll serve at least two years on the front. If you survive, you’ll be given a homestead of your own, on one of the newly colonized planets you helped fight for. If you survive.

“In this room right now there are 1,022 recruits,” Lieutenant Colonal Higges said. “Two year from today, 400 of you will be dead.”

Higgee stood in the front of the theater, again. “In the third year,” he continued, “another 100 of you will die. Another 150 in years four and five. After ten years – and yes, recruits, you will most likely be required to serve a full ten years – 750 of you will have been killed in the line of duty. Three-quarters of you, gone. These have been the survival statistics – not just for the last ten or twenty years, but for the over two hundred years the Colonial Defense Force has been active.”

There was dead silence.

“I know what you’re thinking right now, because I was thinking it when I was in your place,” Lieutenant Colonel Higgee said. “You’re thinking – what the hell am I doing here? This guy is telling me I’m going to be dead in ten years! But remember that back home, you most likely would have been dead in ten years, too – frail and old, dying a useless death. You may die in the Colonial Defense Forces. You probably will die in the Colonial Defense Forces. But your death will not be a useless one. You’ll have died to keep humanity alive in our universe.” (p. 107-108)

John Perry (the old man of the title) is signing up – survival statistics be darned. Of what awaits him he has only a vague idea. As he soon discovers, fighting the real fight, light-years from his home planet, is far more brutal and life-altering than he could ever have imagined. So…

… who wants to kill some aliens?

While casting about for a punchy way to describe this book, the first thing that sprang to mind was a comparison to Pixar’s UP. No joke. Think about it. In UP, the elderly Carl Fredericksen mourns the death of his beloved wife, Ellie, and thereafter embarks on an adventure. In Old Man’s War, John Perry (also elderly and also a widower) sets out on his own adventure in the aftermath of his wife’s passing.

Obviously, we’re talking about two different kinds of adventuring here – rescuing exotic birds vs. blowing away alien beasties – but the situational similarity is neat to consider, amiright?

(Don’t take that the wrong way, by the by: Old Man’s War is intended for adults. It is most emphatically not a candidate for family read-aloud time.)

Lovers of military sci-fi, take note: Old Man’s War is a ripping yarn that pays homage to the likes of Starship Troopers and The Forever War. This isn’t to say it’s a recycling of those works (quite the contrary), but the influence is clear. What raises this story above many of its peers is the deeply human element. The soldiers here aren’t just so much cannon-fodder, and Scalzi refuses to let the action – as thrilling as it is – get in the way of good old fashioned character development.

The story itself is brilliantly wrought, giving a tip of the space helmet to greats such as Heinlein while firmly establishing its own uniqueness. As a reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly put it, “This virtuoso debut pays tribute to SF’s past while showing that well-worn tropes still can have real zip when they’re approached with ingenuity.”

This is what I call a triumph.

Oh, and Santa – if you’re reading this, pay real close attention to this next bit: I want a CDF MP-35 for Christmas. Seriously. Get me one, and I’ll let you live.

A Case of Humanism Far More Reprehensible

This passage from Clyde Kilby’s essay on “The Aesthetic Poverty of Evangelicalism” is as damning an indictment of modern Christian “art” as you’re likely to read. I love it.

There is a simplicity which diminishes and a simplicity which enlarges, and evangelicals have too often chosen the wrong one. The first is that of the cliche – simplicity with mind and heart removed. The other is that of art. The first falsifies by its exclusions; the second encompasses. The first silently denies the multiplicity and grandeur of creation, salvation, and indeed all things. The second symbolizes and celebrates them. The first tries to take the danger out of Christianity and with the danger often removes the actuality. The second suggests the creative and sovereign God of the universe with whom there are no impossibilities. The contrast suggests that not to imagine is what is sinful. The symbol, the figure, the image, the parable – in short, the artistic method – so pungent in the Lord’s teaching and acting, are often noteworthy for their absence in ours. Is this not a case of humanism far more reprehensible than the sort of humanism we often decry?

Our excuse for our esthetic failure has often been that we must be about the Lord’s business, the assumption being that the Lord’s business is never esthetic.

Flotsam & Jetsam (6/27)

Just Like Tomorrow Morning Is – “All this reminds us again that there is no political solution to what ails us. We are a nation with the staggers, and our prophets and judges all have paper bags over their heads. There is such a thing as political and legislative faithfulness, but there is no such thing as political and legislative salvation. God brings us to the end of our puny little abilities so that we may trust, not in ourselves, but in Him, the God who raises the dead.”

Our Business – Eliot nails it.

MovieByte: Monsters University – It’s not as good as the original, but TJ calls it “a pretty good return to form for Pixar.” Good to hear. I’m looking forward to seeing it myself.

A Monk of Summers – Why you should shop at TJ Monx.

The Myth of Persecution – Trueman’s reviews are always entertaining and informative, and this one is particularly so. This passage made me laugh out loud: “Moss’s comment thus left me wondering whether her target audience was not, after all, benighted Bible-thumping Christians but rather the fan base of Jersey Shore.”

The Sine Qua Non of Gospel Ministry – Spurgeon, being boldly biblical. Again.

“The quicker goes the journalist the slower go his thoughts. The result is the newspaper of our time, which every day can be delivered earlier and earlier, and which, every day, is less worth delivering at all.” – Chesterton

Not WW3, But WWZ

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When a zombie pandemic begins sweeping the globe, retired U.N. special agent Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to stop it.

A lesser man would point out that facing down ravenous undead hordes was most emphatically not in the original job description. But Gerry’s better than that. He may not be the best man for the job, but he’s probably the best man alive for the job – and he’s willing to take a shot at saving humanity if it secures his family refuge aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier.

Within hours, he’s on a flight to Camp Humphreys, a military base in South Korea where the term “zombie” was reportedly first used in reference to the plague. And that’s only the beginning. As governments are toppled and armies are crushed, Gerry races against the clock to fulfill one very simple mission: isolate the source, find a cure.

Did I say simple? Silly me. Continue reading —>

The Best Pair of Eyes

“Some writers have discovered, and I think more will discover, that Christianity offers them the best pair of eyes. This is not the main reason for being a Christian – one should not worship Christ merely in order to write Hamlet – but the discovery remains valid. To change the metaphor, the Christian lives in the roomiest house available. Writers who become Christians discover that they have only their negations to lose.”

– Chad Walsh, “The Advantages of the Christian Faith for a Writer”