Monday, February 13, 2006


When it comes to science fiction, I have a tough time finding things to read because while I tend to like large-scale epics involving wars spanning galaxies and lots of alien races and ancient artifacts and the like (gee, if only they'd make a set of movies on a milieu like that!), I don't much like what's become "Military SF", and it's hard sometimes to figure out what's "Big-Ass Space Opera" and what's "Military SF".

Actually, this isn't even totally fair: I've read some Mil-SF that I've liked a bit, some that I've liked a good deal, and some that I thought was total crap. The crap stuff always strikes me as "war-porn", where we're into violence for the sake of violence, where the battles stretch on for scores of pages, where the action takes major precedence over anything resembling "issues" (or where the "issues" are swept aside by simply posing a "them or us" scenario, where "them" is typically some kind of alien race that subsists by killing all in their way).

It's not totally impossible to tell the "neat Mil-SF" from the "war-porn". Baen Books, for example, makes it fairly easy. If the cover depicts a ship captain standing on the bridge of a starship, jaw thrust out in confidence as explosions flare outside the windows and tactical screens depict the proximity of enemy vessels, that book's probably straight Mil-SF. However, if the book depicts some soldier standing on a rocky planetscape garbed in a giant metal suit that gleams with more chrome than you'd find on the hood of a dozen 1950s-era Fords and he's toting a raygun-like weapon that's roughly the size of a cannon on one of Cortez's ships, well, there's your war-porn.

Which brings me to John Scalzi's Old Man's War, which I read last week.

(Actually, that line of argument up there doesn't really bring me to Old Man's War at all. I'm just making a hasty transition.)

OMW is definitely Mil-SF, because it is set almost entirely in and around a military concern. But it's not war-porn, because it most definitely describes war as a capricious, violent, and often senseless process. And it's really quite good: a breezy, fast-paced and fairly easy read that nevertheless contains some of that "idea" stuff that sticks with you a bit afterwards.

The story is basically that a man named John Perry turns 75 and joins the Colonial Defense Forces, an interstellar military that only recruits the elderly. (Their reasons for this are explained in the book.) Perry undergoes lots of military training, has some "body modification" done (that's all I'll say about that, to keep one of the book's niftier passages as surprising as possible), and then he's off to war.

Funny thing is, the CDF isn't involved in any single, longstanding war; it's involved in many wars at once, against many alien species that are competing with humans for habitable planets. This device allows Scalzi to not get bogged down in having all the battles seem the same, and it also allows him to give his military recruits some very creative deaths (Thomas's death was particularly nasty).

Toward the end, a bit of plot emerges from the novel, as one alien race develops an advantage that by rights it shouldn't have, and as John Perry meets someone who may or may not be his dead wife. I found this last story thread to be the least convincing element in the book, but it's not that unconvincing. And I did have some lingering questions about Scalzi's universe, which may or may not be answered, I suppose, in future novels placed in the same setting (the first of which, The Ghost Brigades, is coming out real soon): how is it that Earth just sits there, peaceful as can be? If there are that many alien races cavorting around for the same planets we are, why haven't they pounded Earth yet? How is it that Earth seems to have at least some of the same geopolitics then as it does now (so much so that one of the book's recruits is a former Democratic US Senator)? And does the CDF answer to anyone at all? Who is in charge of all this?

(I should also note that one sequence, involving a drill sergeant, reminded me of the army training of Forrest Gump, and of a Saturday Night Live sketch in which Phil Hartman played a drill sergeant who had a unique way of speaking -- "I will be like everyone to you! It will seem like all the people who are normally around you are me!" But then, that's not Scalzi's fault; I suspect that for the rest of my life every drill sergeant scene I ever encounter will remind me of those things.)

Old Man's War is one of the more entertaining reads I've had lately, and I recommend it on that basis alone -- but it really seems to be scratching a more complex surface. I hope we get more than The Ghost Brigades and whatever the third novel in this universe is going to be.

(And as per Mr. Scalzi's instructions on his own blog, I did not read the excerpt of TGB that's printed at the back of the OMW trade paperback. Apparently that passage spoils a plot point that Mr. Scalzi would rather not be spoiled.)

(Oh, and by the way, I give Scalzi thirteen bucks of my money to buy his book, and Sprint just ups and gives him their nifty new cellphone thingamabob. I call shenanigans! Looks like it's the public library for the rest of my Scalzi reading, since he obviously doesn't need my thirteen bucks. I coulda bought a pizza with that....)

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