Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – A Further Venture into Science Fiction

September 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

While I’m only too happy to venture into the never-ending realm of fantasy, I’ve always steered clear of science fiction. I suppose you could say that I’ve dabbled in the genre, in a very broad sense, but my tastes veer more toward futuristic dystopia than sci-fi its purest sense. Something about science fiction intimidates me. I feel as though I don’t have the scientific brain to understand it. But then, what exactly is the true definition of science fiction? And what does it take to enjoy it?

Although I don't read much SF, I do love The X Files...the truth is out there.

Although I don’t read much SF, I do love The X Files. Does that count?

Well, clearly, I am a novice here. So I’ll defer to one of the masters of science fiction to explain the parameters of the genre:

I define science fiction as the art of the possible. Fantasy is the art of the impossible. Science fiction, again, is the history of ideas, and they’re always ideas that work themselves out and become real and happen in the world.
– Ray Bradbury

I really like this definition because it is enormously broad. It encompasses the potential of science fiction, but also provides a fairly clear parameter – the possible. If there is simply no derivative potential for a concept to eventuate, then it crosses over into fantasy. If there is a real, factual basis for development, even in a fictional context, then it can be classified as science fiction. Of course, as this io9 article showcases, definitions of science fiction are as endless as its subject matter. Being quite new to science fiction, I’ve got a dizzying amount of authors, sub-genres and series to select from. I have read Ender’s Game (which I loved), Dune (which blew my mind), the obligatory Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and an interesting novel called Counting Heads, but in all honesty, I have no idea where to start with sci-fi. So I asked a trusted source for a recommendation of something that could be considered “introductory sci-fi”, and ended up with John Scalzi’s first novel, Old Man’s War.

Old Man’s War is the light-hearted story of John Perry, who signs up to the intergalactic military at the  prescribed age of seventy-five . At once funny and unsettling, this book shattered my expectations of sci-fi.

John Scalzi's Old Man's War

John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War

John Perry joins the Colonial Defence Forces because there’s not much left for him on Earth. His son is grown and has his own family, and his beloved wife died a decade ago. When he reaches his seventy-fifth birthday, John ascends to the heavens with his fellow septuagenarians, all of whom are now contractually bound to defend human colonies on planets all over the universe. As they settle into life in outer space, the question on everyone’s mind is how the CDF is going to transform ailing senior citizens into elite soldiers. After proving his capability, John’s consciousness is transferred to an all-new body. His body is now built for fighting, equipped with healing capabilities and a chlorophyll-based immune system. Not to mention the intelligent chip implanted in John’s brain, which he affectionately refers to as Asshole.

Now accustomed to his new body, John is assigned to a platoon and sent out to different planets to fight for humanity’s right to colonise. At first, he’s raring to go, and establishes himself as a superior soldier. But after a while, John finds that the constant destruction he leaves in his wake is getting to him. He starts to question the virtue in conquering the universe at the expense of other intelligent life.

Alternate cover for John Scalzi's Old Man's War

Alternate cover for John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War

John suffers a nervous breakdown as the might of the CDF begins to overwhelm him. When he is sent with his platoon to defend one of the human colonies, John is prepared for combat. The enemy that he encounters when he arrives, though, is not fearsome foe he had expected. Rather, he is fighting a Lilliputian colony, whose soldiers are little more than an inch tall. The CDF succeeds in defeating this race – by stepping on them.
Alright, it’s not a subtle metaphor. But that’s kind of the point – it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek. It takes literally crushing an enemy beneath his boot for John to realise that perhaps humanity has too much power.

Scalzi has a brilliant sense of humour. Nothing about Old Man’s War is taken too seriously, and it’s all the more enjoyable because of it. He has a way with his characters – affectionate and gently mocking. John Perry is a likeable hero – he is loyal to his friends, brave on the battlefield and sensitive to the suffering of others. He’s also quite funny, and the fact that his persistent attempts at humour tend to fall on deaf ears only adds to his charm.

One of my pet hates about speculative fiction of any kind is the dreaded info-dump. When an author deposits enormous chunks of world-building information in the midst of an otherwise compelling narrative, it sets my eye a-twitching. Scalzi, however, delivers relevant scientific information to his characters, rather than directly to his readers. When he introduces a new concept, it’s not only new to us as readers, but to the protagonist as a character. So John seems to bump into other people in the story who are able to explain these things to him. The reader learns along with the character, and so becomes more immersed in the story. While this is a clever device, I will admit that Scalzi does sometimes deploy it a little heavy-handedly, but it’s much better than sitting through awkwardly placed info-dumps.

Overall, Old Man’s War was a really fun read. I finished it over the course of a weekend, and I eagerly purchased its sequel, The Ghost Brigades. It’s got everything – humour, tragedy, old people, toilet humour (an unfortunate weakness of mine), and even a bit of romance. And all of this in space! Who knew sci-fi could incorporate so much. I think it was the perfect introduction to the variety that science fiction can offer, and it’s got me looking forward to my next venture into the unknown.

You can find John Scalzi’s popular blog here.
You can buy Old Man’s War (and you should) here.
If you’re in Brisbane, pay a visit to Pulp Fiction Booksellers, and see what they might recommend for you.

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