John Scalzi's Old Man's War is a modern scifi classic, which is probably why I've only just got around to reading it; for all that I keep meaning to crack Don Quixote and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the like, I am just not one for the classics. I think I just resist the idea that I might read anything because I 'should', rather than because I want to. A hallmark of having been in school, in one form or another, for all but about four years of my entire life, I suspect. I'm just a little tired of being told what to read.
Also, those fighters? Complete lies. It's infantry all the way.
The story concerns the titular old man, and his titular war. John Perry of Idaho is a widower and a senior, making him perfect for the needs of the Colonial Defence Force. The CDF, which seems to be a body completely independent of any particular government's control, offers the chance to join up only to those who have passed the age of seventy-five, for two very good reasons. One, anyone who has reached that age, and is still in decent enough physical and mental shape to even consider joining a military organization, is likely to have a lifetime of useful skills, abilities and thought processes already deeply ingrained, along with a sense of connection to the broader human community. A young person might join up for adventure; an old person would be joining up for a purpose. And two, what the CDF has to offer as a reward for service is distinctly valuable to those sorts of people; it's not until you can see death on the horizon, after all, that the promise of more life is really going to hit home.
The book is less a discrete narrative than a series of occurrences, following Perry from his wife's grave on Idaho, to Colonial Station in geo-synchronus orbit over Earth, onto the CDFS Henry Hudson, a transport full of other recruits, into basic training on Beta Pyxis and finally, out into the broader conflicts that seem to constantly assail the human Colonies (and yes, it's capitalized like that; 'the Colonies'). Along the way he meets various people, mostly good, and mostly dead by the end, since the universe in which Perry and his fellows find themselves is stranger and more dangerous than anyone can possibly imagine, and an unimaginable threat is one almost impossible to defend against. His training sergeant, Ruiz, is a particularly delightful character, an Angry Drill Instructor right out of Hollywood's central casting but self-aware enough to warn his recruits that he doesn't act like this because it's 'what's expected', but because being loud and angry and borderline abusive is just about the only way to really get through to people just how completely out of their depth they suddenly are. He's also got a good friend in Alan, and eventually a rather strange connection to Jane Sagan, a member of the mysterious 'ghost brigades', the CDF Special Forces. There are other characters sprinkled around, of course, and generally speaking they're all pretty decent, more than capable of carrying their part of the plot with enough style to make them more than just Stock Character #21-A. Which is good, because as I said, there's not actually much plot, so the character work had better be strong.
If there's not much plot, though, there are some very nicely constructed set pieces. The biggest two are basic training and the Battle for Coral, but in between Perry sees action in a variety of rather strange places. From fighting insectoid aliens who're centuries ahead of humanity's technology but restrained by a desire to sanctify the lesser races through the ritual shedding of blood, rather than simply annihilating them, to one-inch tall humanoids with a dangerous space fleet but cities that invite any normal human to play Godzilla, to pterodactyls and giant spiders and a few other odds and ends in between, Perry's adventures give the reader a glimpse of just how fundamentally weird the galaxy really is. It's not as hostile as, say, the galaxy in Warhammer 40K, but it's certainly nowhere you'd find the United Federation of Planets, or even the remains of the Systems Commonwealth. There are a few species who're willing to live and let live, but for most, the cutthroat competition for land and resources is every bit as fierce among the stars as it ever was for colonial Europe.
The cover of my copy had a blurb that compared the author to Heinlein, and I'd agree, but with a caveat. See, I don't actually like Heinlein very much. Starship Troopers is a demi-fascist mess, a war book with no decent action scenes and a ludicrous premise (an all-volunteer army big enough to defend humanity across the stars based on the reward of voting?), Stranger in a Strange Land has trite, self-congratulatory new-age ideas about love and sex and life and death, and the less said about Lazarus Long and his omnisexual exploits, the better. What I will say about Old Man's War, then, is that it's like Heinlein the way he 'should' have written. In that regard, it made me think of a novel I read a while back, Armor by John Steakley; the idea of Armor was to take the general idea of Heinlein's Mobile Infantry, file the edges off, and actually give the readers some decent military action. Old Man's War is Heinlein-esque in the same way. It takes a dubious idea, military service conferring a particular social benefit, but cleans it up; rather than a franchise that most people in stable democracies can't seem to be bothered to exercise when it costs them nothing at all, Old Man's War offers the elderly a chance to start over again physically, promising youth and vitality, but this time with the wisdom to use those gifts better. Old Man's War also incorporates technology into the soldiers in a way Starship Troopers and Armour never did, building better personal platforms for war-fighting rather than wrapping frail humans in powerful suits of armour.
Old Man's War is not a heavy book. Clocking in at just three hundred and thirteen pages, with a fair-sized font and spacing, I breezed through this thing in a couple of days, and that's with work, chores, relationships and the finishing touches for an Allied contingent for my Tau cadre squeezing it from all sides. But part of the reason I went through it so quickly was because it's a very good book; I could easily have spent twice as long on it, if not longer, if it was just okay. The writing style is very loose and natural, though I found myself mentally skipping over 'I said', 'he said' and 'she said' as the book wore on, since the author almost never ends a piece of dialogue without the relevant suffix, and if it never gets particularly deeply involved in certain moral dilemmas or ethical arguments, I got the feeling it was more because the author wanted the reader to think about the pros and cons themselves, rather than because he was lazy. This scifi classic is fun and funny, with some decent action, decent technological imaginings, and a final set-piece that gives a nice sense of closure to a story that hasn't really been building to anything in particular, and very specifically doesn't end when the book runs out of pages. It's a look into a year or so in the life of John Perry, not the story of a military campaign or an enlisted man's climb up the ranks, and while that might leave it feeling a little insubstantial in places, it's also got a certain relaxed charm that works very well. Old Man's War is one classic, at least, that's worth reading for its own sake.