Reviewed by Matthew Appleton
An edited version of this review originally appeared in the April 2006 issue (#212) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.
The urge for authors to write a novel in response to Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is completely understandable. In addition to the genre’s well-established internal dialog, Heinlein’s statue and influence in the field, combined with his didactic and inflammatory statements concerning citizenship and the responsibilities of those who serve in the armed forces, almost demand a response from each new generation of sf writers. What’s really amazing is that it inspired John Scalzi to compose Old Man’s War, a novel that in some ways is very similar to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, even though Scalzi never read Haldeman’s classic. Don’t let the structural similarities fool you though; Heinlein inspired Scalzi to write something different from Haldeman’s take on the material nearly 30 years ago.
Old Man’s War tells the story of John Perry, a 75-year-old widower who enlists in the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF), the extra-terrestrial organization dedicated to defending the human colonies in the galaxy from hostile alien lifeforms and extending human-controlled space so that humankind can continue to expand comfortably. Few on Earth know much about how the CDF is run, but many find the promise of a very secretive “rejuvenation” process too enticing to ignore. In fact, in a conversation Perry has with fellow recruits before making it to boot camp, many admit that the reason they joined was because of the promise of a rejuvenated body. The process is a very successful one that brings to mind the green dittos from David Brin’s Kiln People–with the noticeable difference that these bodies are permanent and superhuman in just about every fashion. Once Perry and his fellow recruits finish training, we follow him as he moves from one engagement to another as the CDF attempts to both defend human space and conquer other worlds so that humankind can expand.
Before contemplating the political and militaristic statements Scalzi appears to make, it is interesting to note an argument he presents during the training portion of the narrative. Although the recruits receive bodies genetically altered to exceed normal human limitations, Scalzi presents reasons as to why senior citizens make a better fighting force than a group of twenty-somethings. Of course, the new bodies are an essential part of the equation–and at this time totally unfeasible–but beyond that, the argument makes a lot of sense. Young adults still have most of their lives ahead of them, whereas the elderly, by the very virtue of their age are more expendable. The youth are more likely to engage in self-preservation than the type of selfless actions that the battlefield may necessitate. The stereotypical Master Sergeant, who in post-modern fashion explains that he’s aware of the stereotype and that he’s actually the real thing, points this out when he states:
“It’s also because you’ve lived long enough to know that there’s more to life than your own life. Most of you have raised families and have children and grandchildren and understand the value of doing something beyond your own selfish goals… It’s hard to drill that concept into the brain of a nineteen-year-old. But you know from experience. In this universe, experience counts.” (pg. 144)
It’s an interesting inverted twist on Heinlein’s posit from Starship Troopers, where one earns citizenship only through military service; Scalzi is suggesting that serving an extended citizenship first produces better soldiers–all other factors being equal. However, we find out later in the novel that some of that experience can also be a liability, especially when it comes to politics, but in the abstract, he makes a valid point.
When focusing on the military and politics of the novel, it becomes clear that the current state of foreign affairs for the United States contributes much to Scalzi’s modern take on the material. While any liberal who actively follows politics can probably rattle off the alarming similarities between the Vietnamese and Iraqi conflicts, the fact is that for many people the events of 9/11 changed the prism through which we view our global conflicts. The political and social atmosphere in which Haldeman wrote The Forever War no longer exists; there clearly is a time and place where military solutions must be considered, no matter how distasteful. For example, while the merits of invading and occupying Iraq have been the subject of great debate since before the first troops were deployed in the Persian Gulf, only a very few felt that the American invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban-harboring government was wrong.
One scene in Old Man’s War makes it clear that Scalzi thinks that absolutism in the pursuit of peace is a folly in and of itself. After surviving his first few battles, Perry finds in his platoon a new recruit, Thaddeus Bender, who was previously active in American government, serving as Senator, ambassador, and in a number of other positions. When his platoon is sent to Whaid, the homeworld of a technologically inferior species, to ensure that its inhabitants don’t present the CDF any additional troubles for a few decades, Bender–whom Scalzi pointedly informs the reader was a Democrat–decides on his own to attempt to recreate a moment from his previous life as diplomat and broker a peace treaty between the Whaidians and humans. For his efforts, the Whaidians ultimately fired 40,000 needlelike projectiles into him, thus liquefying him where he stood.
Yet, Scalzi also acknowledges that it can be far too easy to overuse the military. Aside from providing the members of his platoon “one of the most interesting deaths any of [them] had ever seen in person,” Bender did start a conversation on how the military option is often chosen far too quickly by stating, “the problem with the CDF is not that it’s not a good fighting force, that it’s too easy to use.” (pg. 168) Although Perry and a few of his comrades make it a point to inform Bender that he really has no idea of how the universe works–a point finalized 40,000 times by the Whaidians–one member of his platoon, Luisa Viveros, was somewhat sympathetic to his arguments, even though she thought that Bender didn’t really know all the facts before pontificating. Before joining the CDF, in her previous life Viveros was the daughter of a Peruvian president who was murdered in a military coup. Because of this, it is her wish to someday become part of the decision-making structure in order to help ensure that the CDF are not used too liberally. Unfortunately, she dies in combat, leading to the speculation that the very nature of the beast makes it very difficult for someone to find a way to enact that change from within.
Scalzi scatters other details that seem to make some sort of post 9-11/Iraq commentary throughout the book. Before becoming a member of the CDF, Perry notes in the enlistment form a clause that states, “I may not during the term of my service refuse to bear and use arms as ordered or cite religious or moral objections to such actions to avoid combat service.” (pg. 15) Given that no one is drafted into the CDF, just as is the case with today’s US armed forces, this seems to make a clear statement that anyone who makes the decision to enlist should never object to how they are used. In fact, that clause as well as another that stated the enlistee’s readiness to take part in any procedure to enhance combat readiness (shades of the military’s recent battles with current soldiers and getting them to take the anthrax vaccination, perhaps?) really makes me pause; maybe we are seeing a future clause in military enlistment contracts.
Once he moves on to basic training, Perry and the other recruits are given lessons in how to avoid making judgments on who are potential enemies and allies based solely on physical appearance alone. They are also taught that attacks can come from anywhere, and to not even trust the land they walk on, or the water they wade through. Indeed, Bender is killed not by the Whaidian militia, but by the civilians whom Perry and the rest of his platoon were ordered to avoid harming in any way. Is Scalzi suggesting that this type of guerrilla warfare is impossible to fight? It’s hard to say, because in the case Bender’s death, Scalzi is sending a mixed message. Bender dies because his disobeyed orders, not from any lack of battle plan execution. On the other hand, because of the way the civilians opened fire on him, the CDF decide to kill all those who took part in killing him–so what exactly dictates the divide between military and civilian targets?
For all the commentary and modern interpretation of the material, one fascinating thing that Scalzi does is turn Old Man’s War into a love story. In a fashion, this parallels the subplot in Haldeman’s Forever War where Private William Mandella and Marygay Potter create a life together after the war ends. However, John Perry’s path to post-war marital bliss differs greatly from Mandella’s. Unlike Haldeman’s protagonist, Perry is a widower who spent time at his wife’s grave just before enlisting. Furthermore, although he develops strong feelings for one of the female cadets with whom he goes through training, she dies in battle while with a different platoon. Without giving away all the details, when he does find the woman he could settle down with after his tour ends, it turns out that she’s a member of an elite military force made up of individuals with implanted memories and bodies cloned from the genetic material of those who enlisted (or promised to enlist) but died before the rejuvenation process. Immediately drawn to her, Perry tries to help her discover who she really is and convinces her that there is more to life than just the military, which is all she has ever known.
Combining the love story, all the other previously described elements, and a few other unremarked items with wonderfully clear prose, Old Man’s War stands as an impressive debut novel. Working in the shadow of Heinlein is no easy task, but Scalzi’s response is well-crafted and is a very intelligent work that can be enjoyed without any knowledge of Starship Troopers. Interestingly, even though it’s not a classic Heinlein-esque juvenile novel, it can be viewed as one. Thanks to his new body and the fact that he cannot communicate with and is legally dead to those he knew back on Earth (a condition of enrollment in the CDF), John Perry must find his way in a universe that is completely hostile to him and humankind. He needs to survive and carve his own niche in this environment, rediscover what it means to be human, and, assuming he ultimately survives his tour of duty, will need to create a new life for himself without the help of anyone he grew up with. While telling an engaging story, Scalzi manages to make some very cognizant points about warfare and the human existence without becoming didactic. In doing so, he admirably continues the sf’s traditional internal dialog about such matters.