Just finished John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. It had been recommended to me by a variety of people for years, and has received glowing praise, including one guy – a writer and industry insider I met – who called it ‘the best military scifi out there.’ Now, I’d been hearing a lot about Scalzi in general, as he’s very popular, and I’d read a couple short stories he’d put out in various venues (which were okay, but not fabulous), so I picked up Old Man’s War to see what all the fuss was about.
As it happens, I’m still not sure.
Now, I’m not saying that the book is bad – it’s not and, indeed, as an introduction to the subgenre that is military SF, it’s a great place to start – but there really isn’t anything all that exceptional about the book. I liked it, more or less, but it was kinda…well…boring. I felt like I’d read it before. There was nothing flashy, nothing new, nothing to get my blood going. The science he discusses was interesting, but most of it I’d heard elsewhere before this (from sources published prior to Scalzi’s book) so it wasn’t precisely riveting. The dialogue was snappy, but it seemed like everybody was approximately as clever as everybody else, which sort of made it bland. The characters weren’t flat, really, but also fell just short of compelling. I wasn’t fully engaged with the struggle of the main character, John Perry, mostly because he didn’t undergo any kind of change and encountered precious little conflict. It was a book that seemed to avoid creating an antagonist.
If I felt like I’d heard this story before, it’s because I have. It’s been told a lot, actually, and it’s the basic ‘join the army, go to war, change your perspective’ thing that’s shown up over and over again in both the military SF genre and military fiction in general. It started all the way back with All Quiet on the Western Front (or possibly earlier, though that is the most influential book for the modern era), continued with The Dirty Dozen and its WWII cousins, went on to be showcased extensively through the Vietnam War era with movies like Platoon and then, later, with Full Metal Jacket. Robert Heinlein did it with Starship Troopers, and, when it was made into a movie, Paul Verhofen did it again, but gave it a distinctly different feel. The short-lived Fox series Space: Above and Beyond did it, as did Timothy Zahn in the Cobra War series and William C Dietz did in Legion of the Damned. Basically, if you’ve read or seen any of those books or movies, you’ve essentially already read Old Man’s War.
The trope shows alarmingly little variation. It goes like this:
Step 1: Guy joins army for reason (x), but doesn’t really know what he’s getting into.
Step 2: Guy goes to boot camp, wherein he meets Drill Sergeant (see figure A), who is tough and mean but who whips the group into shape and, even, comes to begrudgingly respect his recruits.
Step 2A: Guy bonds with buddies in boot camp.
Step 3: Guy goes to war, feeling he’s tough, but then meets real soldiers, and realizes he’s wrong.
Step 4: Guy gets in first engagement, earns respect.
Step 5: Guy’s friends start to die. This has (x) effect on guy.
Step 6: Guy is finally involved in The Big One–some pivotal battle–and manages to achieve some manner of distinction (only guy who survives, guy who saves the day, guy who saves his buddy, etc., etc.).
That’s it. Story over.
Now, the good Military SF stories shake this formula up a bit in various ways. Heinlein, of course, is the template since he’s the guy who ported this story into science fiction first. How you change and/or depart from the template is the way you distinguish yourself from the pack and add something new and interesting to the story. Additionally, since the external conflict in the story is so abstract and impersonal (especially in sci fi, where the enemy is mostly inhuman and noncommunicative), the really important aspects of the story are the internal conflicts and/or the message being conveyed by the author about war.
War is, at its heart, a deeply political subject and most authors tell this story for the express purpose of engaging with it. This can be very interesting, and creates a lot of variation in the structure. Zahn in the Cobra Trilogy, for instance, deals with PTSD in cybernetic super-soldiers. Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front, seeks to expose the cruel lie of a ‘glorious or just war.’ Deitz’s story is one of redemption, wherein you have a former criminal coming to terms with his new role in life. Scalzi’s is about…
Being old and in space? No, could have been about that but nothing was really done with it. Finding the love of your life again during wartime? Nope, not really. Kinda, maybe, but, again, that plotline doesn’t go anywhere. Is it a political message about the necessity of war? No. Again, potentially, but not really pursued. Is it anti-war or pro-war? Errrr…ummmm…I sort of have to say both? There are moments where either side is supported, but the author doesn’t really come down on one side or the other. This would have been okay, if the general thrust of the story was to show some kind of moral ambiguity or conflict over the necessity of war, but that was very much absent. It’s more like Scalzi just doesn’t want to talk about it. He’s more interested in battle scenes and blowing things up and fancy technology – all of which is cool, mind you, but the lack of anything else leaves the story a bit thin. Light. Hollow.
Perhaps, in the end, I just had really high expectations that weren’t met. I was looking for something that would cement this story in the pantheon of scifi lit for years to come, but it wasn’t there. This isn’t literature – it’s a fluff tale of explosions and battles and, for all that, it isn’t even as full of Awesome as some other stories in the same category. It was just another story about a guy (in this case, an old guy) who leaves home to join the army and has random adventures against a rotating cast of aliens. You know, that old yarn.
I just finished my syllabus for my Technology in Literature elective this coming semester. Students will have to write two short research papers and, just for fun, I thought I’d post the assignment here and see what folks think of it. Heck, if you like, go ahead and write the papers (don’t you dare send it to me to grade, though–I’ve got enough of that already). Anyway, here we go:
The overall focus of this course is the portrayal of science and technology in literature and how those portrayals illuminate the concerns and hopes of humans living in a certain era. It tells us a lot about how they thought, what they believed, and also can tell us some things about how we have changed, if at all, from those times. In class we will be discussing certain individual works from certain time periods and analyzing them closely, but we won’t be able to fully explore everything. Your task, in two short research papers, is to expand upon our class discussions and deepen your understanding of one or several of the works we are studying, bringing in outside sources and other contemporary works to develop a unique and compelling thesis regarding the cultural and, perhaps, even scientific significance of your chosen work.
Accordingly, your precise topic is left to your discretion. I will provide suggestions below, but you needn’t be bound by them—if you can come up with a different topic that interests you more, please explore that. In general, however, you are writing an in-depth literary analysis of one or more works from either the first half (for paper 1) or the second half (for paper 2) of the twentieth century. All papers should incorporate at least 6 sources (including the primary sources), be 6-8 pages in length (approximately 1700-2400 words), feature double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point font, have numbered pages, stapled, with a works cited page in MLA format. A rough draft for each paper is allowable, but is strictly optional. If you wish to receive your rough draft back in time to make revisions for your final draft, be certain to submit it a week or more prior to the due date. Papers may be handed in at any time during the semester up until the due date. Late work is not accepted.
Paper 1 (pre-1960)
- How did the idea of British world supremacy influence HG Wells’ Time Machine?
- Is The Time Machine racist? If so, why and how? How is it related to Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”?
- How does Asimov’s opinion of the Soviet Union affect the themes inherent in Foundation?
- Does the Galactic Empire in Foundation symbolize Ancient Rome? If so, why does Asimov choose Rome as the analog? If not, what does it symbolize instead and why?
- Is Heinlein aware of the fascist undertones to his society in Starship Troopers? What is his attitude towards fascism as depicted in the book? How does it differ, if at all, from the kind of fascism demonstrated by the Nazis in 1940s-era Germany?
Paper 2 (post-1960)
- Gibson’s depiction of cyberspace in Neuromancer represents a kind of ‘wild frontier’, in a sense (Case is a ‘cowboy’, those who operate in the matrix are apart from society, etc.). What is the meaning of this metaphor? Where does Gibson think the ‘matrix’ (what we now know as the Internet) will lead us?
- Explain and explore the role of religion and spirituality in Neuromancer. What does it mean? Why does Gibson include it?
- In Snow Crash, why does Stephenson choose to use the Mafia as protagonists and how does this differ from other late-20th century depictions of the mob and why?
- What is the symbolic significance of Hiro and Raven’s shared heritage in Snow Crash? What, if anything, is Stephenson trying to say about the future of America?
- In Banks’ Culture, he shows us a ‘perfect’ symbiosis between man and machine. How does Banks choose to portray this symbiosis? Why?
- Explore the significance of gender roles in The Player of Games and how does this parallel the changing understanding of those roles in late 20th century Western culture.
This is more me thinking out loud than expositing a theory: Do/Have/Will Social Constructions (i.e. governments, political ethos, economic theory, social mores) constitute a kind of technology?
The knee-jerk answer is ‘no’. Technology is most commonly applied to engineering and the harder sciences – it involves
tools, gizmos, or arrangements of same in ways to ease our lives. If we consider technology in wider sense, however – as from the Greek tekhnologia, which means ‘systematic treatment’ – couldn’t social constructions fit? The modern postal service, for instance, is a systematic treatment involving, at its heart, a societal convention of what constitutes ‘mail’, how it should be treated, and who is responsible for it. Yes, the crunchier kind of technology is involved, but those are merely time-savers. The inherent social construction of ‘mail’ is something else and, I feel, somehow technological.
I’m thinking about this for two reasons at the moment. First is that I’m teaching a class on Technology in Literature this spring, featuring a lot of science fiction works that we will be analyzing in historical contexts, and I’m noticing just how much society dictates technology and vice versa (more on that in a minute). The second reason is that, given all the social upheaval in the world (Lybia, Syria, Italy, the OWS movement, etc., etc.), one is forced to wonder if there isn’t a better system that we could implement to organize ourselves. Science Fiction is awash in such theories, from Heinlein’s various and sundry new societies in novels like Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress all the way to Iain M. Banks Culture novels or Star Trek’s Federation of Planets. Could any of that stuff work, one wonders? Is the reason it hasn’t so far is that we just haven’t ‘invented’ such a society yet?
Getting back to my first point above, it’s fairly clear that technology has a formidable influence over social constructions (just look at Facebook or, hell, look at the compass) AND that social constructions have a formidable influence over technology. After all, the reason why Europe wound up conquering most of the Earth isn’t because they were inherently smarter or better, but because they had a fractured social landscape that encouraged warfare and emphasized the acquisition of land in such a way that encouraged the growth and development of military technology to the point where they were simply the best at it (and please don’t start pleas for the skill and mastery of this or that indigenous people at warfare – the results really speak for themselves; the British Pound still trades favorably against all international currencies and the Zulu nation are a disaffected minority group in a mid-level African country holding a mere fraction of Britain’s much-faded influence and power. Guess who won that conflict?).
One of the problems, perhaps, with thinking about social structures in terms of technology is that we like to think of
technology as a linear progression, no matter how many technological dead-ends and reversals have shown themselves throughout the millennia. Societies, we have been trained to think, are not better or worse than each other so much as they are different. You can’t sit there in judgement of Russia’s predilection for Vodka and insist it is ‘less advanced’ than the cultural constructions of other places. Society doesn’t really work that way, does it? We aren’t taking steady strides towards the Social Singularity, are we?
Or is it the other way? Is technology not actually striding towards anything so much as it is following one of many, many possible paths that may or may not pay off, but does not indicate the ‘right’ way to do anything. What kind of world would we live in, then, if Betamax had trounced VHS, or where Tesla had overcome Edison? Still better: what kind of world would we have lived in where that would have been possible?
Wheels within wheels within wheels…