REVIEW SUMMARY: If you like early Heinlein then you will like this book.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An old-school military sf story following seventy-five year protagonist John Perry through recruitment, rejuvenation, training and war – fighting for the protection of the human colonies against a host of different alien species.
PROS: Clear, concise writing style and interesting story kept me turning pages; fast-paced; reminiscent of Heinlein at his best.
CONS: None – a perfect execution of a very interesting story.
BOTTOM LINE: A page-turning military sf adventure story with a classic feel.
First-time author John Scalzi scores a home run with his old-school military sf novel Old Man’s War, the story of a soldier’s rise through the ranks of the Colonial Defense Force. John Perry is seventy-five years old when he enlists in the CDF. Through rejuvenation techniques, he is transformed into a soldier whose job it is to save the human colonies from the multitude of alien races that are fighting for the same planets. Luckily, the technology of the CDF exceeds the measly technology levels of Earth because they’re going to need it. Battle by battle, Perry rises through the ranks of the CDF and discovers the truth about the mysterious Special Forces units.
The book, in which the author gives acknowledgement to Robert A. Heinlein, is intentionally based on Heinlein’s juvenile format and purposely parallels Starship Troopers. How? First and foremost is the writing style. Scalzi delivered the story quickly and efficiently while keeping me immersed, interested and hungrily turning pages. There’s no padding here, just clearly delivered prose that’s intensely interesting while it adds only pertinent story elements and occasionally gives a laugh. Second, both books tell the story of a soldier’s rise through the ranks, only instead of a young newbie, Old Man’s War‘s protagonist is a seventy-five year old widower brought into top fighting condition through advanced rejuvenation techniques. Third, each deals with some thought-provoking and controversial issue. In Starship Troopers, the issue was fighting for the right to vote. In Old Man’s War the issue is using the elderly to fight wars and earn the right to live in the colonies. Make no mistake, though; although Old Man’s War resembles Heinlein, this is no rip-off novel. It stands clearly on its own merits. But if you like early Heinlein, then you will like this book.
The author does a superb job in fleshing out the characters of the book. All of them seem three dimensional because they are both realistic and they have their own personalities. This makes it that much more dramatic when characters start biting the bullet left and right, or, in this case, are being subjected to any number of horrible alien demises.
Speaking of which, with a large supporting cast of various aliens both cool and unique, the sense of wonder in this story is kept alive and kicking. Aliens range from bear-like to pterodactyl-like creatures to deadly slime mold beings and inch-tall pests with deadly firepower. (Concerning these: An example of the well-placed humor that garnishes the book is John Perry’s comment that killing the inch-tall aliens by stepping on them is like Gulliver beating up the Lilliputians. Heh-heh.) Alien cultures are also explored when the CDF battles the Consu who believe that the death of other races is their path to salvation. Technology also adds to the sense of wonder via the rejuvenation techniques used on the new recruits, a space elevator, the Skip-drive that allows for interstellar travel and the BrainPal, a PDA-like device implanted in their skulls. Those were cool.
It’s clear to me that Scalzi has gone over the plot with a fine tooth comb as it is near-bulletproof. There were several occasions where some plot point was buoyed as if to answer some concern I might have had (but didn’t) while suspending my disbelief. The explanation was usually given under the guise of the CDF forces planning mission details and worked to great effect. Such occurrences showed that this well-polished story is the result of the author’s skillful diligence.
Old Man’s War, the first in a series I eagerly await, is a fast-paced, fun, tip-of-the-hat to Heinlein that succeeds in every way it can.