Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (Series, #1)
John Perry joined the Colonial Defense Force on his 75th birthday. Americans aren’t allowed to be colonists in outer space, but they can defend the colonies in the outer space army. Old folks join for many reasons from boredom to having always wanted to see outer space, even though details of what goes on out there are kept secret from Earth. In spite of all the secrecy, the rumor is that those who join the CDF get to be young again, and who wouldn’t want a second chance at life?
Multiple friends have read this book and loved it, and of course I found the idea intriguing, who wouldn’t? So when a friend offered to loan me his copy, I took him up on it right away. I was not disappointed in the world Scalzi has created, it is endlessly fascinating, but the main character’s arc failed to be quite so interesting to me.
I can’t imagine how anyone would not find the basic premise of this book interesting. Outer space colonies that are kept a mystery from Earth. Only certain countries allowed to colonize (primarily those suffering from population overload). Top it off with a colonial army made entirely up of old people who supposedly get to be young again? Completely. Fascinating. And Scalzi really comes through on the science of all of this, the politics, and manages to have some surprises in there, in spite of the what seems to be very straight-forward book summary. And the world beyond the soldiers and the colonists is utterly fascinating as well. The aliens are incredibly creatively imagined, not just in their looks but in their cultures. They feel real. And that extends to the battles and spaceships as well. The worldbuilding here is phenomenal. It is an example of how scifi worlds should be built.
The main character, though, as well as his character development arc, fail to live up to the incredible worldbuilding. John Perry, from early on, is talented at war, in spite of having only been an advertising slogan writer for his whole life. He has no real life experience that would make one think he would be good at war. Additionally, even when he is doing battle, he’s kind of flat on the page. He doesn’t jump off as the leader he supposedly is supposed to naturally be. Other characters feel that way, but not John. In fact, I frequently found myself far more interested in the secondary characters around John than in John himself. I was willing to give this a bit of a pass since, well, the character has to live for us to continue to see the wars he’s fighting, and maybe Scalzi has a thing for unlikely heroes. But his character arc takes an odd turn at the end that really bothered me.
John meets a special forces woman who is in his dead wife’s body. Basically, his dead wife’s DNA was used as a base to build a genetically enhanced body. Ok, I’m fine with that, even if it seems unnecessary. But then John becomes obsessed with her, and she with him, even though she is very clearly NOT his wife. Then at the end, he asks her to move to a colonial farm with him when they retire. And she says yes. Whaaaaat?! This isn’t romance; this is gross! The special forces woman has as much in common with John’s wife as her sister would at this point, since they have messed with the DNA so much. This is like John pursuing his dead wife’s sister, who is emotionally only 6, since she was put into a fully adult body 6 years ago and had no life prior to that. It’s gross. It is not romantic. And I really think the reader is supposed to see it as romantic, when instead it squicked me out far more than any of the aliens in the book, including the ones with slimy appendages or the ones who eat humans.
Overall, this is an utterly fascinating scifi world with a bit of a ho-hum main character. The ending may disappoint some readers, and Scalzi’s politics can come through a bit obviously sometimes. However, those at all intrigued by the plot summary or interested in high quality scifi world building should check it out.
4 out of 5 stars