Friday, July 10, 2009

Commentary: Old Man's War

Old Man’s War: Progressive Comments #1

Let me start by saying this isn’t one of my typical reviews, it's more a comment-by-numbers. As I read through this novel I made notes at certain points about my thoughts and impressions. It's very much a stream-of-consciousness piece.

OLD MAN’S WAR is an excellent novel, hands down. John Scalzi’s work is compared to Heinlein in a cover blurb. I beg to differ. I think Mr. Scalzi’s work is far better, no insult intended to the SF great, and that statement comes with a disclaimer that I read Heinlein’s work as a young adult many, many *ahem* solar flares ago.

Instead of a review, I want to focus on what elements went into making OLD MAN’S WAR so superb, and why it defies some of the rules of getting a debut novel published in our time.

First of all, the hook. There is none. The story begins with a 75-year-old man contemplating the past over the grave of his wife. In his mind he rehashes her rivalry with another female, who in one of life’s ironies, is buried beside her. He says his goodbyes. Then he enlists in the military--the Colonial Defense Force.

My first thought is that it’s amazing some genius editor or agent somewhere read past the first twenty pages of mundane introspection to see the brilliance of this story. How did John Scalzi manage to grab someone’s interest with his first novel, when it’s been pounded into the heads of writers that we can’t sell a novel if it doesn’t grab the reader by the collar and drag them into the story within a paragraph or two. No grab and drag here. Instead you get the slow build of facts that lead you to understand what the protagonist is facing. What he will sacrifice. What he is getting himself into. What he will lose and what he may gain. But most of all, you understand life is never going to be the same for him again and he is, literally, venturing into a great unknown. "To boldy go" takes on a new depth of meaning. But it takes a couple of dozen pages to get you there.

Having read those first pages, I am now thoroughly on John Scalzi’s hook. And it has me wondering if just plain good writing can still sell novels, even without the throat-grabbing dynamic hook.

Old Man’s War: Progressive Comments #2

I’m not off the hook yet.

After a rather slow start, the story is building with some thought-provoking twists and turns. Through the MCs eyes I’ve now experienced his indoctrination into the Colonial Defense Force or CDF, his transport to a space station, catching first sight of an alien and then being packed off on an interstellar ship where he meets some of his fellow inductees.

Since no one who has joined the CDF has ever returned to Earth and communications aren’t allowed, the MC and his friends don’t know what’s coming. They suspect that they’ll somehow be made young again in order to be useful combatants, but they don’t know exactly what that process will entail. I sensed the MC’s mixture of unease and excitement at the next step. First he is tested in some painful, embarrassing and humorous ways--all in the spirit of helping the scientists understand how he thinks and reacts.

And then the threshold to youth is passed—which came with a lot of surprise and more than a little irony.

Old Man’s War: Progressive Comments #3

Oh my, it’s playtime! The MC gets to try out the new improved self while given a bit of R&R time to adjust. One of his companions—they call themselves the Old Farts—surprises him…or maybe ambushes him is the better description. Brave New World, indeed!

More play. Dosey do, switch your partners and promenade home.

All good things must end. Very soon, the MC finds himself in boot camp. He’s singled out as a leader. That’s not necessarily a good thing. He’s tested--or rather his new, younger self is tested--to the brink of endurance. He surprises even himself.

Old Man’s War: Progressive Comments #4

The novelty has worn off and now the MC goes to war. War is hell. Again and again. Different day, same stuff, different planet, different enemy. Go to exotic locations, meet strange new species…and kill them.

Sometimes the enemy surprises him. Sometimes he doesn’t even recognize the enemy. Alien enemies can come in many shapes, forms, sizes and belief systems. Flora and fauna. Giant and microscopic. Aggressive and complacent. Terrified and enraged.

After months of endless fighting, the MC goes a little crazy.

He begins to lose his friends, one by one, as they meet their ends, usually in ironic or foreshadowed ways.

MC is still alive, but doesn’t want to be.

War is hell.

Intergalactic war is the worst kind of hell.

Old Man’s War: Progressive Comments #5

MC is put into an impossible situation, and let’s just say the MC has a very bad day. A terrible day. And with it comes introduction to the Ghost Brigade (also the title of book 2). Ghost Brigade troops are downright nasty, sociopathic grunts—and not in a good way.

And then MC sees Jane.

See Jane throw MC across the room.

Bad Jane.

And now I must be careful to avoid spoilers and ruin all the fun. Let me just wrap this by saying this story kept me hooked, start to finish. Extremely well written with liberal doses of very wry humor, irony and eye-opening observation, and one of the more terrifyingly humorous disaster scenes I think I’ve ever read, all because the MC never really takes himself too seriously.

The only shortcoming of this story—IMHO—is the seeming lack of emotional depth of the MC when really bad things happen. (But I would say that because I’m a science fiction romance writer, and...well, emotion is my business.) Even so, it seemed at times the MC had no deep connection to anyone or anything happening around him, to friends or peers being killed or to situations devastating enough to make a real human being curl up into a fetal position in a dark corner. I realize this book wasn’t written for the romance crowd, but at times the MCs responses and reactions fell very flat for me. It seemed he never felt deep emotion--no panic, no terror, no love. It was as if he gave complacent mental shoulder shrugs in the face of great personal loss. If you look for romance in this story, you won't find it, but all the basic ingredients were in place that it could have been a profound romance or at the very least, a story with a poignant romantic slant.

Nonetheless, OLD MAN'S WAR is an engrossing read--a must read--and a big hit for traditional SF readers.

And yes, I’ll definitely…definitely…read the sequel.


  1. I'm looking forward to reading this book at some point as well. Great post, and thanks for avoiding spoilers.

    I can't help but wonder if the lack of a well-defined hook (other than the title, which conveys somewhat of a hook) was offset by Scalzi's ginormous blog success. In the case of OLD MAN'S WAR, how much of the success is intertwined with his blog?

    Regardless, if the book wasn't strong, his successful blog might not have made much of a difference. At any rate, his path to publication is fascinating any way you look at it.

    The other thing I like about Scalzi's approach to SF is that it's more commercial driven--accessible SF that has the potential to attract new readers and keep the genre alive. All SF is wonderful, but I like how it's been evolving.

  2. Thanks for your post, Heather. My gut feeling is that maybe his blog presence carried enough weight that an agent/editor read past those first rather dull (IMHO) 20 or so pages. Or, maybe they just liked his voice.

    To be honest, I had the same feeling about the one and only Dresden Files book I read. Very slow start. I stuck with it only because I'd heard great things about Jim Butcher's books.

    Makes me it a guy thing? :)


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