Book Review: Old Man’s War by Scalzi (4 stars)

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

4 out of 5 stars

Read in December 2008

A good story, regardless of genre, and an especially great military science fiction tale.

Our point of view is through the eyes of John Perry. We meet him on Earth, as a seventy-five year old widower living in Ohio. It’s his birthday and it’s time for him to report for duty. He (and his wife) both signed up for the Colonial Defense Force ten years ago, recruited with visions of renewed youth and minimum of two years of service. Kathy died eight years ago of a stroke while making cookies in their kitchen. John makes his farewells to friends and family and visits his wife’s grave one last time.

John and several thousand other 75-year olds are transported to a Colonial transport ship and enjoy the usual military “hurry up and wait” routine. Eventually, after seemingly endless and pointless tests, the day of truth arrives and the recruits report for their final physical improvements regimen.

Rather than a retrofit of his existing body, John receives a new improved not quite human body with many enhancements, including green photosynthetic skin, cat-like eyes, SmartBlood (nanotechnology), BrainPal (PDA and HUD with extreme Internet access all embedded in the brain – both voice and thought activated) and superhuman reflexes, strength and endurance. After training, designed mostly to convince the recruits that their old inhibitions do not apply to their new bodies, the soldiers are dropped into battle with a variety of incomprehensible, tenacious and prolific alien species. Their goal – to defend the scarce “real estate” of the human colonies and potential colony planets.

For me, the best parts of this story were the relationships. They were sparse but gripping. Perry’s memories of his wife and marriage. The familial bonding among the Old Farts and the grief of their passing. I was especially touched with the death of Maggie, who composed a heart-wrenching jisei poem as she plummeted through a planet’s atmosphere:

Do not mourn me, friends
I fall as a shooting star
Into the next life

And lastly the burgeoning relationship between Jane Sagan, occupying the body of Kathy, John’s wife, and John Perry. Her anonymous postcard sent to John inviting him to find her when he retires and start a new life with her brought tears to my eyes.

I recommend this to anyone who loves military science fiction, with a good dose of wit and sarcasm, flavored with a gentle touch of what it means to be human in an insane non-human galaxy.