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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.

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Book Review: Starship Troopers

The historians can’t seem to settle whether to call this one “The Third Space War” (or the fourth), or whether “The First Interstellar War” fits it better. We just call it “The Bug War.” Everything up to then and still later were “incidents,” “patrols,” or “police actions.” However, you are just as dead if you buy the farm in an “incident” as you are if you buy it in a declared war…

In Starship Troopers, Jaun “Johnnie” Rico signs up with the Federal Service and struggles through the toughest bootcamp in the Universe, determined to make it as a cap trooper with the Terran Mobile Infantry. But the hardest part is yet to come – when he’s thrown into battle against an enemy unlike anything mankind has faced before.

Looking for futuristic weaponry, space soldiers, and nasty aliens? This is the book for you. Looking for a mental workout to get the old lemon throbbing? This is also the book for you. Or to put it another way: are you a sci-fi enthusiast with a taste for politics and moral philosophy? Read Starship Troopers. It has both in equal measure.

Continue reading Book Review: Starship Troopers

On the Bookshelf XII

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
After nearly two decades in Britain, the author decided it was time to return to the U.S. – but not before embarking on a grand farewell tour of the island that had so long been his home. Bryson is a keen and delightfully funny writer; in fact, he reminds me of Mark Steyn, if Mark Steyn ever did travel writing. Some of the humor is, shall we say, off-color, but on the whole this is easily one of the most entertaining books I’ve read all year.
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
Yes, yes – I said I was going to read this Hugo award-winner months ago. Better late than never, though, right? I’m a couple chapters in, and enjoying it immensely thus far. Fantastic writing, fantastic story. But as exciting as the action is, I get the feeling that this book is going to be about much more than space battles and aliens. Which is exactly why I picked it up to begin with.
Pensées by Blaise Pascal
“The last step that Reason takes is to recognize that there is an infinity of things that lie beyond it. Reason is a poor thing indeed if it does not succed in knowing that.” I’d all but forgotten about this one… until it appeared on my senior year reading list. Awesomeness.
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne
A beautiful, beautiful book, rich in passages like this one: “As yet God suspends me between heaven and earth, as a meteor; and I am not in heaven because an earthly body clogs me, and I am not in the earth because a heavenly soul sustains me.” Donne was a true wordsmith.
On the Incarnation by Athanasius of Alexandria
“Athanasius contra mundum.” I recently did a study of this man’s life, and the more I learn about him, the more I admire him. Such a remarkable defender of the faith. He penned On the Incarnation at the ripe old age of twenty; it’s short, potent, and what I love most is the passion with which it is written.

What’s on your bookshelf right now?

On the Bookshelf III



Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden
A vivid account of the first sustained firefight involving U.S. troops since Vietnam. I’m almost finished with this one, and I think I can safely say it’s going to be a favorite. Certainly one of best war books I’ve ever read: beautiful in it’s portrayal of camaraderie, sacrifice, and raw courage; and ugly in it’s accurate, blood-soaked depiction of modern warfare.
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
My first sampling of Crichton (Terminal Man) left a bad taste in my mouth. Now I’m giving him a chance to “redeem” himself with his most famous novel, Jurassic Park – and so far, he’s doing just that. The story is smart, suspenseful, and disturbingly plausible.
Christian Love by Hugh Binning
I haven’t actually started this Puritan Paperback yet, but it’s my next intended read. A reviewer on Amazon said it was “reminiscent of Jonathan Edwards in its balance of rationalism, attention to scripture, and harmonious structure.” Sounds plenty good to me.
The Deadliest Monster by Jeff Baldwin
A terrific examination of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Can you guess which one has the more scriptural view of man’s nature? If you’ve read either of the aforementioned classics, this book is a must. The humanism I mentioned in my Frankenstein review gets a full and detailed treatment by Baldwin, who then contrasts it with the Christian worldview of Stevenson’s book.
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
“Join the army and see the universe.” I’ve been wanting to get my hands on this one for some time, and yesterday, I finally succeeded. It’s considered a classic of science fiction. Being a fan of the genre, how could I pass it up? Now I’m itching to get started.

What’s on your bookshelf?