Old Man's War

By John Scalzi

Reviewed Nov 11, 2017 on The Litt Review.

I loved this book. I downloaded it months ago from Tor as part of their newsletter (which you ought to subscribe to), and only started reading it when I picked up a copy for a buck at a charity shop while looking for the wonderful, utterly inimitable Alan Dean Foster’s work. I peaked it open after finishing Winter’s Heart (review forthcoming) for the eighth time while up in Schefferville, and read a couple of pages while waiting in line for the train. Within a hundred miles, and five hours later, it was done.

Old Man’s War nominally covers a war in the stars, fought by septuagenarians who had enough of their time on earth. It starts with a pensioner visiting his dead wife’s grave, before going to the local enlistment office. I had considered that the enlistment would be a ruse, and that bodies in chairs would spent time behind Gundams blasting through foreign pit mines on Delta Centauri III. What I didn’t count on was that (spoiler alert, stop here if you’re going to read this, which I highly suggest) they would be transplanted into fitter, younger clones of their bodies, but with the added benefit of having cat eyes and chlorophyl-laced green skin (just a slight touch off of having tails, four fingers, and a predilection for speaking Na’vi. Of course, this book came first, so blame Cameron for being a copycat).

This is where the book starts to get really interesting. The war among the stars isn’t an exploration à la Star Trek, nor is it one giant ship humming between the worlds as in Wolfe. It’s almost like Ender’s Game, with alien species battling over colonisable worlds. Unlike them, there’s little in the way of contact with other aliens, excepting in combat. Treaties don’t work, and the book focuses on grunts fighting aliens they can’t predict or understand. Our super-humans don’t have the advantage for the majority of the fights - why would they?

Listen to me. There has never been a military in the entire history of the human race that has gone to war with more than the least that it needs to fight its enemy. War is expensive. It costs money and it costs lives and no civilization has an infinite amount of either. So when you fight, you conserve. You use and equip only as much as you have to, never more.

So the drill sergeant for the newly-20 year old recruits says, and some of the strategic military gems that come from him and others in the book I found new. For instance, in telepathic troops, there’s no reason to cluster into groups. You can spread out as far as your range allows.

There were some other novel items I hadn’t seen before. There’s no faster-than-light travel. Instead, ships would improbably disappear and reappear elsewhere in the universe, in a process known as skipping. This occurs by way of the multiverse; it is less improbable that you’d appear in a similar universe to your own, so jumping through universes and appearing elsewhere is predictable. This also means that you can’t go back to your original universe, but it doesn’t matter much, because universes stay coherent and the one you’re in is the one you’ve got. I thought this was a brilliant way to get around the inconvenience of FTL, and I also liked that Scalzi didn’t get bogged down in multiverse scenarios after explaining this, unlike most others who use the multiverse as a plot prop. He avoids it by claiming that we got it from aliens in the first place, too. That’s how you level up in a military setting.

The green man idea was decidedly Wolfian - there’s one in The Book of the New Sun that has a feature in Urth of the New Sun (and no, I don’t mean the Green Man in the Eye of the World - I mean a man with chlorophyll-infused skin). But more Wolfian than that was the time when our hero (a very likable narrator, with the same dry sarcastic sense of humor as most in the book) meets his dead-wife, reincarnated into a new body, without memory of her former life. This was done incredibly well, and amazingly, again, Scalzi didn’t end up bogged down in a romance under fire.

Scalzi’s approach to bodies, in general, is fascinating. The book treats bodies as temporary houses for our minds. At one point, the drill sergeant asks all of his recruits who are minorities to step forward. Then he yells at them for being idiots. There are no minorities when everyone is a green clone. Old barriers are broken down. Testicular cancer, or a broken jaw, mean less than they used to, if you can be replaced.

More than that, while bodies don’t necessarily determine identity, our relationship to them does.

“What is it like to lose someone you love?” Jane asked. “You die, too,” I said. “And you wait around for your body to catch up.” “Is that what you’re doing now?” Jane said. “Waiting for your body to catch up, I mean.” “No, not anymore,” I said. “You eventually get to live again. You just live a different life, is all.” “So you’re on your third life now,” Jane said. “I guess I am,” I said.

Or, with another nod to love as the great transformer of bodies:

“You lived with me ten times longer than I’ve lived with me,” Jane said. “You are the keeper of me.”

The shells we currently inhabit aren’t defined so much by their characteristics (for, like the Klingon’s state, it is only an empty shell in the end), but by our relationship to them. Lovers hold each other’s identity, as do friends. Scalzi draws a clear distinction between fighting for humanity, and fighting for your friends:

“Why do you fight for [the colonists]?” “Because they’re human and because I said I would, “I said. “At least, that’s why I did at the start. Now I don’t fight for the colonists. I mean, I do, but when it comes down to it, I fight - or did fight - for my platoon and my squad. I looked out for them, and they looked out for me. I fought because doing any less would have been letting them down.”

This makes me wonder if, later in the series, Scalzi will have other sentient creatures that pass over this barrier between us and them. In this book, it doesn’t happen. The closest we get is when his dead wife, without any memory of her former life, repeats her dying sentence in this body, too, only, instead of asking where the vanilla was, she says:

Where the hell did I put that ammo clip - Jane sent, and then the rockets hit.

Which hopefully shows adequately that the writing in places was delicious. For instance:

Guns don’t kill people; the aliens behind the trigger do.


“No one likes an overachiever, Captain” “No, sir, I guess they don’t”, I said, “although it’s Lieutenant.” “We’ll just see about that.”

At times the humor was a bit too good, and I wondered why this was only a finalist for the Hugo (and not the winner) and how many novels Scalzi had to scrap before he decided to publish this as his first. He draws heavily on Heinlein, at one point directly referencing one of his most-loved quotes:

Do you want to know what it’s like to wake up one day, your head filled with a library full of information - everything from how to butcher a pig to how to pilot a starship - but not to know your own name?

Catch it? He’s talking about:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Our hero is a pretty good example of the competent man. The book is basically competence-porn, like The Martian is.

In short: a wonderful book. I can’t wait to pick up the rest of the series.

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