Old Man’s War Boxed Set 1 by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have rapidly become a Scalzi fanboy. I’m proof of the sentiment behind Scalzi’s new $3 million deal – when someone reads one Scalzi book, they read them all. I don’t believe it discounts what I’m going to say, but it’s worth noting up front. Starting with The God Engines and going through Red Shirts, I’ve built up a huge enjoyment for Scalzi’s style. What style is that? I’ve had a hard time articulating it to friends and family. Here’s my best shot – Old Man’s War is not a comedy, but it’s funny. It’s an like action movie, but it’s not dumb. The humor mostly comes from witty or sarcastic responses by the main characters. Even though it’s framed as a military action book, it’s mostly a series of character studies. I also enjoy that both within a book and within the series, Scalzi only doles out information as needed. This has two good effects. First, there are no info dumps – or if there’s more than one paragraph of explanation, it’s the only way Scalzi has of conveying it Second, as we learn more of the universe – either through our POV characters learning more or by going from regular army to special forces, it forces us to re-evaluate what we learned before in a new light. Most apt in that comparison is the scientist telling our main character early in the first book about how the space elevator is designed in such a way as to be a symbol of how much more advanced the Colonial Union is than Earth without revealing just how advanced. With all that’s learned (mostly in the second two books), the scale of that deception is truly realized.
Before I get to the different themes I found interesting, I will say that one of Scalzi’s best talents as a writer seems to be the ability to create plot twists that are completely unexpected, but also completely foreshadowed. So, unlike an M Night Shamalayan movie, the twist doesn’t seem like a story-telling cheat.
Here are some of the themes and some of the things I enjoyed throughout the trilogy:
Scalzi’s writing on the brochure for the CDF body is GREAT corporate satire. Liberal use of trademarks and overly cheery information on what is essentially a killing machine.
When we finally find out how the old Earth-based humans get the bodies necessary to partcipate in a war despite being 75 years old, Scalzi raise some interesting themes. The idea of being able to change into a new, younger body has some implications including perhaps somewhat being an irresistable carrot for re-enlistment. At least for those who managed not to die. Additionally, the CDF owned the bodies, which is why they had to be returned when military service was over. Because consciousness can be tranferred between bodies, it creates an interesting situation because it’s not exactly slavery – as the owning of bodies would be in our world. But it’s not exactly freedom. Although Scalzi never explores it, it’s also interesting that the CDF bodies do not have a consciousness without a human to put in there.
Scalzi’s framing of the Colonial Union as jingoistic for the entire human race as well as their secretive nature with information seems entirely realistic for the way humans have always acted. Were a skip-like technology to exist, I would expect it to be just as censored as it was in this universe.
The Consu were a very interesting addition to the universe. They are so powerful and advanced as to not have to tolerate any other race’s BS, but they simply operate on the concept of making nudges here and there to essentially make sure all races can ascend to heaven. It’s almost as if somehow Buddhists on Earth – say, the Dalai Lama and his crew – ended up with technology eons more advanced than anything we have now and would intrude on us here and there with little pokes towards Nirvana while mostly not interfering.
As a quick note, I found my favorite scene in the entire trilogy to have been the drill instructor scene which was both a deconstruction and reconstruction of the drill instructor stereotype. It communicated quite a bit of information through humor and provided a reason for a mean drill instructor.
Like the first movie of The Matrix trilogy, the CDF forces have to unlearn their human body limitations. This is not just realistic, but it also gives the reason for what makes the Special Forces so special. Since they are born into their bodies, they always use them to the full potential.
Throughout the trilogy there are only two things that seemed to be without a pay off. First there was theory that skips operate by shuttling the people into a different, but mostly the same universe in the multiverse. There never seemed to be a payoff for that, but I don’t see how there could have been without taking the entire story off track. I guess one payoff is that humanity doesn’t understand how skips work, which ends up being a major plot point. It also reminded me of Mass Effect and the Relay system. Both relays and skips enable space exploration. Both seem like ways for the authors to get around the real science that says none of these types of stories can ever be realistic because of the distances involved. Both turn out to have hidden issues. The second thing that never paid off was the werewolf and opposable thumb thing on Roanoke. I thought it would turn out that all the species on there were were-animals. But I also though the sentience would pay off.
The Ghost Brigades were quite an interesting idea. When I first heard the term, I though they had a way to take the “ghosts” from people who’d died and that’s what made them special forces – being noncorporeal. But instead we ended up with even more themes. The bodies are extra modified and often prototypes for CDF. This was the unethical aspect part one. Then there was the child soldier aspect. While the BrainPals accelertated their learning, they were still child soldiers – including not questioning what they were told or why they were told things. That’s why it was so important when Jared Dirac was given the ability to make a choice. In fact, choices were so important – such as the choices Perry makes in the third book. Also, the Colonial Union’s use of Roanoke as a pawn – again attempting to restrict their choices through information revealed.
The idea of the Obin being uplifted and, therefore, lacking a conscious was a nice evolution on the idea of the monolith introduced in Space Odessy 2001. Scalzi doesn’t explore it much here, mostly just uses it for plot purposes. But it certainly raises interesting ethical questions as well as thinking of different ways that monolith use could go awry. Perhaps he’ll explore it more in Zoe’s tale since she has her Obin bodyguards.
Without spoiling, what the Humans do to the Eneshans….I thought to myself, that’s exactly what humanity would do. And it’s sad.
In a great example of how Scalzi foreshadows and/or doesn’t retcon, but makes his twists seem inevitable, when he introduced the plot point of BrainPals allowing for mind-reading, I smacked my head with a huge “DUH! I can’t believe I didn’t realize that!” After all, if it can read your thoughts as a brain-computer interface, it can record and forward those thoughts. Also, as someone in the computer security field, the idea of BrainPals having a back door and the subsequent fix made me wonder if any computer software can ever be proven to be secure through some kind of testing suite. Based on what I know, I’d say no, not with current technology.
Finally, I thought The Conclave was a neat de/reconstruction of the idea of The Federation from Star Trek. I must confess that while I’ve always enjoyed Star Trek, I have large gaps in my knowledge of the universe. But it was interesting to see the Colonial Union refuse to join, even as the US did not join the League of Nations. Also, while it’s meant to be an overall force for good, it’s certainly not afraid to obliterate an entire planet to make a point. The UN has caused death through inaction, but never through action – not on this scale.
If you like science fiction and military fiction, I can’t see a reason not to enjoy this trilogy.
-The Conclave and comparisons to The Federation