John Scalzi and I have a history. We both attended the University of Chicago, and we both wrote for the student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon. We actually had parallel 1980s versions of “blogs” — feature columns in the Maroon. We were, in some sense, rivals. But Scalzi always knew he wanted to be a writer; for me it’s always been more of a sideline. He ended up being editor of the Maroon; I ended up meeting my future wife and dropping off the staff. He went on to become a full-time writer, with a column on AOL and lots of commercial gigs. I went on to become a textbook editor who was never sure whether he wanted to edit or write. (Now that I’ve chosen writing, I can assure you, editing pays better [for me, anyway — I don’t know what Scalzi makes].) A few years back, I rediscovered Scalzi. I knew he had been in the newspaper business, but I didn’t know about his online presence until I stumbled across his blog. His very successful blog. Scalzi’s blog gets several thousand visitors a day. My blog gets several hundred visitors. On a good day. But, despite this history, I like Scalzi’s blog, so I figured maybe I should read his latest book, his first novel, Old Man’s War.
So, when I say that Old Man’s War is not the type of book I would normally consider reading, when I apologize for my unfamiliarity with “genre fiction,” you should take those remarks with this history in mind. I’m trying to be honest, but given my history with Scalzi, I’m not sure I can be.
Scalzi says he doesn’t just want Old Man’s War to be genre fiction, that he wants to reach readers who don’t typically read sci-fi. So perhaps in that sense I’m the ideal reviewer for his book. I haven’t read a straight sci-fi novel since high school, when I devoured books by the likes of Heinlein and Bradbury. As a literature major and then an editor of literature textbooks, my tastes have become more “refined,” and I’m infinitely more likely to pick up a book by Toni Morrison or Kazuo Ishiguro than by Asimov or — well, now, see? I’ve already run out of names of sci-fi writers I can think of off the top of my head.
Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is the book reviewers (and the book’s back cover) seem to compare Old Man’s War to most frequently. I haven’t actually read Starship Troopers, but from what I can recall of the movie, the comparison seems apt. There is a semi-standard military book/film plot that spends its first half in training new recruits, then moves on to the “horrors of war.” Starship Troopers uses it, as does Full Metal Jacket, and even Stripes and Forrest Gump. When you’re in company like that, why mess with tradition?
Old Man’s War begins with the premise that Earth has begun colonizing space, but faces fierce competition from other intelligent species. In order to defend the colonies, they develop technology to rejuvenate old people, and recruit a force of willing 75-year-old soldiers who figure if they’re going to die anyway, they may as well do it in a sexy new body. The book is narrated from the perspective of one of those recruits, John Perry, a mild-mannered widower who turns out to be one heck of a soldier.
John Scalzi is a very funny guy, and so I expected this book to be funnier than it turned out to be. Perry is constantly making wisecracks that inevitably fall somewhat flat; the joke seems to be that Perry can’t make a decent joke, so in his new young body he ends up seeming something like Woody Allen on steroids. Like Allen’s work, I expect that this might come off somewhat better in film than it does in print.
In fact, the book seems practically made with the screenplay in mind. We have dowdy old folks transformed into athletic, youthful types (Cocoon), space aliens of seemingly infinite shapes and sizes (Men in Black), a gay sidekick for comic relief (The Lion King, or any other movie featuring Nathan Lane), and of course starships, space elevators, interstellar travel, and plenty of high-tech ass-whupping (you name it).
Sci-fi writers often complain that the establishment doesn’t take them seriously enough. There are no New York Times reviews for them, and no Pulitzer prizes, either. Scalzi seems comfortable with his role in this world, and accepts that what he’s writing isn’t world-class literature. It’s designed to be a good read, to be easy sequel-fodder, and possibly to land a big film deal. The book reads easily enough, and Scalzi also manages to toss in a couple interesting moral dilemmas along the way: is it okay to kill thousands and thousands of aliens, some of which are even stupider than humans? What does it mean to “die” when your DNA can simply be transferred along to a new body? And a real humdinger: if I transfer to a parallel universe, identical to the old one, am I still me? And what happens to the old universe I just left? But Scalzi doesn’t dwell on these things, preferring to let readers (and perhaps future fan clubs) work them out for themselves. There’s no time to think about moral quandaries when you’ve got another planet to invade, another sequel to write.
After reading Old Man’s War, I wouldn’t call myself a science fiction fan, but I will probably keep my eyes open for the sequel. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see John Perry on the big screen sometime soon, played by, say, Brad Pitt or Will Smith. Scalzi could certainly do worse than that.