Literacy 2008: Book 2: Old Man’s War

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Recommended by
Wil Wheaton, plus dozens of commenters on half the blogs I read (including John Scalzi’s own blog).

I have read very little science fiction (Douglas Adams and Star Wars novelizations don’t count). I’ve read none of Robert Heinlein, who is mentioned in almost every review of this book, and in the author’s own acknowledgements. So I might be missing out on a lot of context, homage, invention, deconstruction and/or re-invention here.

Humanity has begun colonizing planets outside our solar system, but the technology to do so is kept under tight control by the Colonial Defense Force. Anyone at the age of 75 can enlist in the CDF, where he’ll be restored to fighting condition and given a chance at a second life, in return for a few years of service in a war that no one on Earth knows anything about.

Clear, straightforward writing throughout; the book reads less like hard science fiction and more like a series of well-written blog posts from the future. Various “hard” science fiction concepts are introduced and quickly given a rational, plausible explanation. Good pacing, where the next key moment is always just over the horizon, and you want to keep reading past the chapter breaks.

The book reads less like science fiction and more like a series of blog posts. The “and then that happened” style and the quick explanations of concepts do keep the book straightforward, but also rob it of any real suspense or sense of wonder. Has frequent passages of Michael Crichton-esque exposition, where a squad of people from each relevant school of expertise happens to be on-hand to give a short speech explaining the next topic. Frequently feels like fan fiction, where the author hasn’t created characters so much as inserted himself and people he knows into the book; anyone with any real distinguishable personality becomes a “villain” of sorts, and is quickly dealt with.

Does exactly what (I imagine) it sets out to do: tell a military science fiction story that’s rational, plausible, personal, relatable, and above all, readable. It’s opinionated without being overbearing, light without being silly, intelligent without being tedious, and understandable without being too condescending. Unfortunately, it’s also engaging without being fascinating. I can imagine it’d be welcome to science fiction fans who’ve been overrun with fantastic space operas and ponderous analyses of theoretical physics, and want something in the middle. I’m not a big fan of the genre, and I was ultimately underwhelmed by this book, but I can still see myself giving the other two books in the series a try.