March 30, 2005

BOOKS: Old Man's War, John Scalzi (2005)

If I say that Old Man's War is an updated version of Heinlein's juvenile novels -- Starship Troopers in particular -- you're going to expect a callow 17-year-old protagonist and a story aimed at early teens. What Scalzi's actually given us is a 75-year-old hero, and a novel for adults (and smart teens with good taste).

John Perry joins the Colonial Defense Forces as soon as he becomes eligible, on his 75th birthday. It's the job of the CDF to fight humanity's battles on distant planets, with the goal of wiping out hostile aliens before they get anywhere near Earth. The CDF recruits senior citizens because it wants people with a lifetime of experience and common sense to draw on. Those who join the CDF are never allowed to return to Earth themselves; if they survive their 10-year term of service, they are sent to live on one of the human colony worlds.

But how (I hear you asking) can an army of 75-year-old soldiers have the strength and stamina to go to war? Why, by giving them nifty new high-tech bodies, of course. Each recruit has his/her mind downloaded into a younger version of themselves that's healthier, faster, and stronger than they ever were; they're no longer entirely human -- they're green, for one thing -- but they're perfect soldiers.

Once that background is established, the novel is somewhat episodic, as John and his new friends go through training, and then from battle to battle, without much of a through-story. (The plot thread that does dominate the last third of the book is driven by a turn of events that's a bit too coincidental for my liking.) But the battles are terrifically entertaining, and Scalzi's alien races are interesting creations. I especially liked the Consu, who believe themselves so superior to any other race that negotiations are a degrading task, doled out as punishment to Consu criminals and outcasts.

The prose is crisp and clean; the characters are well-rounded; and the story moves along at a brisk clip. This is a solid piece of entertainment, well-crafted and lots of fun.

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