John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army. The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce – and aliens willing to fight for them are common. The universe, it turns out, is a hostile place.
John, of course, does not fight in his seventy-five year old body. He is given a new, much improved one (sort of the Six Million Dollar Man on steroids) that transforms him into a mean fighting machine. He’ll need all of his resources. It’s a scary, violent, deadly universe out there; soldiers are lucky to last a few months. We follow John and his “family”, a group of elderly who joined at the same time he did, from boot camp to the interstellar fighting fields. Not all of them survive.
Scalzi retains his smoothly flowing style in Old Man’s War, and there are traces of humour reminiscent of his first novel, Agent to the Stars, but the story is deeper, richer, more inquisitive than Agent. It could be qualified as a space opera but, just as Spin goes beyond the fantastic, Old Man’s War goes beyond the genre. Scalzi questions what makes us human, in a very different way. John Perry doesn’t have his own battered body, but retains his mind and his experiences. So the question appears: what makes us “us”? How is our humanity defined? Our personality? How much of it would we retain if we were to be reborn, or brought back from death?
He also asks the question: if there are aliens out there (and who says there aren’t), would violence, born of an inability to understand each other, be the only solution?
Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is deceptive. Sure, it can read as a simple war story. But if you’re willing to become absorbed in the story, you will ask yourself the same questions he poses.
Old Man’s War was nominated for a Hugo Award. It’s well deserved.
You can read about other Scalzi novels on his website.