NESFA Members' Reviews

Old Man's War

by John Scalzi

Tor, 2005, ISBN 0-765-30940-8

A book review by Elisabeth Carey

On his seventy-fifth birthday, John Perry enlists in the army and shortly thereafter leaves Earth forever.

Earth is a backwater and the colonies are only interested in new colonists from the countries they prefer—primarily the underdeveloped. The only way for someone from a developed country to get into space is by joining the Colonial Defense Forces, and the only recruits they'll take are people who are seventy-five years old. There's a promise of rejuvenation for all who enlist, and settlement on one of the colony worlds for those who successfully complete their term of service. (The colonies have in some ways much more advanced technology than Earth, and they're mostly not sharing.)

The kicker in this wonderful opportunity for ambitious senior citizens is that out among the stars, humanity is fighting for its life. Or at least for its real estate. There are lots of other star-traveling species looking for worlds to settle, and many of them are looking for very similar kinds of worlds. Many of them also have technology significantly more advanced than even the human colony worlds, making life for the infantry pretty much the living hell it usually is.

Anyway, John Perry hooks up early one with a few new friends, and they go through the early phases of adjustment to their new lives together. One interesting question that they obsess about for a bit is, how will the CDF rejuvenate their tired old bodies? Everything they come up with just doesn't stand up to close examination, but obviously the CDF thinks they're worth a good bit of expense to recruit and train, so there must be something they've overlooked. The answer comes as a considerable shock to them.

The story is basically a foot soldiers in space story, quite well done, and resembling Starship Troopers and Forever War about as much as they resemble each other—and differing from them as much as they differ from each other. The background is in some ways more interesting: this is a populated and diverse galaxy, with aliens whose motives are sometimes clear and sometimes not, and some of whom are hostile and some who are friendly or neutral. Even the government they serve is even more of a mystery to Perry and his fellow recruits than is usual for foot soldiers; it's not their government, or wasn't until they enlisted, and residents of Earth never got any meaningful news or information about the colony worlds. This is a fun and interesting book, that comes to a satisfying immediate conclusion, but there are some fascinating questions left hanging, presumably to be addressed in the sequel(s). Some of those questions involve the aliens. The Consu, for instance, always fight at the technological level of the species they're fighting—and if they lose, they leave that planet forever. There are several theories about exactly what they're doing; none of them really make sense, and it's clear that important information is lacking. Other questions involve the CDF and the colonial government. Granted that Perry's fellow recruits can only come from developed countries; why is it that they're all from the U.S.? (There is one semi-exception—a woman not born in the U.S.—but she was apparently raised in the U.S. after certain events in her childhood.) And what's going on with the Special Forces? These are really Special Forces; even the nice, normal ones that we meet are very souped-up versions of human beings, and there are rumors of really different body types and other strange things out there. There's lots going on here, and I'm looking forward to reading more of it.


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