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.